Keith Humphreys thinks that making pseudoephedrine a prescription-only medicine could shrink the supply of methamphetamine and reduce the damage done by methamphetamine production and abuse. Megan McArdle doubts that the benefits would last, and points to the high costs in money and unrelieved symptoms of making pseudoephedrine harder for genuine patients to get. She even objects to the current policy that puts pseudoephedrine “behind the counter.”
Having not looked closely at this case, I’m not sure whether Keith’s preference for regulation or Megan’s aversion to it provides better policy guidance in this case, though the history of supply control efforts is anything but encouraging.
But Megan makes a common conceptual mistake when she heads her post “The Cost of Meth Prohibition.” The cost she’s concerned with is the cost of a specific enforcement initiative. If we put Sudafed back on the pharmacy shelf, methamphetamine would still be prohibited. Compared to legal commerce, that alone greatly reduces the availability of the drug. So the case for less vigorous regulatory efforts to enforce prohibition isn’t the same as the case against prohibition itself.
In the case of meth, it’s not just the drug that’s noxious; so is the production process. And it’s true that prohibition faces us with a choice between tighter restrictions and more lab activity (assuming that the restrictions would be effective nationally in the long run, as they have been at the state level in the shorter run). So there’s a possible argument – though not, in my view, a convincing one – that the costs of increased meth abuse due to legalization would be preferable to the costs of either more lab activity due to loosened restrictions or the losses to patients due to tighter restrictions. (Keith’s claim that there would be clandestine production even if the drug were legal seems hard to sustain; meth as a legal drug would cost next to nothing to make.)
But we can’t have a sensible debate about the tactics of drug control if every tactical issue gets linked to the prohibition/legalization argument. They’re simply not the same thing.