I have written before about new cold medications that are claimed by their manufacturers to be resistant to the extraction of pseudoephedrine (PSE), a key ingredient of domestic methamphetamine production. These medications hold out the tantalizing possibility of a “have your cake and eat it too” public policy in which PSE-containing cold medication is widely available but meth cooks are put out of business.
According to their manufacturers, these medications (e.g., Nexafed, Zeprhex) work by binding PSE in a lipid or polymer that leaves it with normal bioavailability for people with stuffy noses but limits extractability for meth production. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration is claiming that it is still possible to make meth from these “resistant” medications.
Who is correct depends on what it means to ask whether these medications “work”.
If “work” is defined as whether given infinite production resources, meth could be made from resistant medications, then the DEA is correct: The medications don’t work. A small amount of PSE per box of resistant cold medication can be extracted in a superlab, so if you had an unlimited number of boxes and lab technicians you could eventually make a significant amount of meth.
But if we ask whether these medications “work” in the public policy sense of whether they will curtail meth labs, the data show they will work quite well. It takes about about 10 times as much Zephrex as traditional cold medication (e.g., Sudafed) to make the same amount of meth, which translates economically into an unattractive proposition for a meth cook: The resistant cold medicine required to make meth would cost many times more than the highest price that the meth market will bear.
The DEA is thus correct only in the trivial respect of proving that these medications don’t work in a world in which the laws of economics are suspended. But in this world, they remain a valuable tool in the quest to reduce the destruction caused by meth labs.