July 11, 2005

The Sudafed Solution

Mark Kleiman weighs in on the meth problem. His verdict: there's nothing much to be done besides restricting sales of pseudoephedrine, which could hopefully slow down the labs. Although he points out, as noted in the post below, that the pharmaceutical industry—especially Pfizer, maker of Sudafed—has blocked both federal and state-level measures to do this. With enough media pressure, I think, they may be shamed into relenting, but until then… Anyway, Mark Schone reported on the meth problem in Missouri for Legal Affairs last December and dug up a few more facts:
  • DEA statistics show that consumption of raw pseudoephedrine has risen rapidly since 1998—the time when the fraction of the population using meth leveled off. Since it doesn't seem like more people are getting stuffy noses these days, we can assume that meth consumption has increased and the proportion of heavy users is rising. (Pfizer, of course, disputes these numbers.)

  • Limiting pseudoephedrine may well be effective, but it can't be done on a state-level, clearly. Meth cooks will just go to other states. (Oklahoma banned over-the-counter pseudoephedrine and Arkansas saw its pharmacy sales skyrocket.)

  • States have spent millions busting meth labs, but it's pretty useless. An average cook might be found with enough for six users. Schone calls them "Beavis and Butt-Head meth cooks"; the problem is that there are so many of them.

  • By that token, stricter federal sentencing guidelines for meth cooks seems like a serious waste of money. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is proposing to increase the average meth sentence from 88.5 months to 115. On the one hand, that would bring a bit more racial balance to the federal inmate population, because most meth sentences are handed out to rural white males. On the other hand, as affirmative action programs go, this is a pretty idiotic one. Do we want to spend $20,000 a year for a federal cell some jackass cook who's a tiny fraction of the problem? No.

  • For states, prosecution is becoming too costly. The jails are all filled up. "No agency in Missouri keeps statewide statistics on meth offenders. [Of course.] Stats for all drug offenders, however, show that they're three times more likely to be on probation or parole than behind bars.

  • A federal drug strategy is needed. All that most county sheriffs want to do, really, is to kick the problem out of their county. If it goes somewhere else, whatever.
  • Another point is this. The restriction of pseudoephedrine sales would be nice, and a cost-free half-solution—well, cost-free for everyone but Pfizer—but it's also worth keeping in mind that only about 20 percent of meth comes from small, local labs. The other 80 percent comes from superlabs here in California (our gift to the red states) or, increasingly, Mexico. No doubt much money is being spent trying to crack down on those big labs abroad. That hasn't worked for just about every other drug in existence, so...
    -- Brad Plumer 12:44 PM || ||