Cold remedies and meth labs

The latest fashion in the War on Drugs is pulling pseudoephedrine products (Sudafed and its imitators) off the open over-the-counter pharmacy shelves to prevent the pseudoephedrine from being used as a precurse in illicit methamphetamine manufacturing. John Cole thinks this is daft, and points to my writings as support for the idea that supply control is never the answer to drug abuse.

I’m grateful for the plug (and especially for John’s acknowledgement that my ideas about drug policy don’t follow a rigid formula), but I’m not at all sure I agree. It’s quite possible that making pseudoephedrine a little bit harder to get would slow the growth in kitchen-table meth manufacturing enough to be worthwhile.

A little bit of history here: Decades before it meant stealing music, P2P meant a chemical called phenyl-2-propanone, which was a precursor of methamphetamine. (That’s the way the bikers used to make it; one folk etymology of “crank” is that motorcycle crankcases were used either as reaction vessels or as hiding places for finished product.) When P2P itself became a controlled substance — sometime in the 1980s, if memory serves — that approach became much harder, and the methamphetamine business took a significant hit.

Unfortunately, as DEA Administrator Jack Lawn once told a Congressional committee, if the government builds a 50-foot wall the traffickers build 51-foot ladders. After a few years, the ban on P2P led to the invention (or perhaps reinvention) of a very straightforward synthesis using easily available chemicals, one of which is pseudoephedrine (or ephedrine). Once the recipe was posted on the web, any idiot with decent lab technique and low morals could make meth, and it turned out that idiots with decent lab technique and low morals weren’t in short supply. That made possible the current methamphetamine epidemic.

Methamphetamine is truly nasty stuff, both in terms of the environmental impacts of making it and in terms of the personal and social impacts of using it. (It was meth that destroyed the Haight-Ashbury “Summer of Love.”) It’s toxic to just about any organ you’d like to name, especially the brain. People who have used a lot of meth for a long time (a year is a long time for these purposes) and who succeed in quitting are likely to find themselves with persistent cognitive deficits.

John Cole is right, of course, that someone really intent on getting meth or any other drug, and who lives in a rich society with respect for civil liberty, can’t be kept from satisfying his desire. But price and availability matter; other things equal, the more expensive and harder to find a drug is the fewer people will develop a bad habit around it.

I don’t know what the methamphetamine market would look like if it weren’t dominated by small-scale labs, but the best guess is that the replacement means of making and distributing the stuff would lead to less ubiquity of supply and to higher prices. And if that can be accomplished at no higher social price than forcing people with stuffed-up noses to talk to a pharmacist in order to get their cold remedy, I’m in favor of it.

What amazes me is that the OTC drug lobby has so much power that the Congress, which is always happy to vote for longer drug sentences, is only now getting around to considering imposing this fairly minor inconvenience on a national basis to deal with today’s #1 drug menace. It might well fizzle. But it’s worth a shot.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: