Methamphetamine abuse is at epidemic proportions in the United States.
Across America, many rural communities and small towns are plagued by crime and indolence bred by the easy availability and widespread use of “speed,” “ice,” “crystal,” “glass,” or simply “meth.”
Trafficking and use of this illegal drug has become a not-so-well-hidden blight in many once-idyllic towns. In small kitchens in homes scattered at the end of back streets or the heart of quiet neighborhoods, amateurs “cook” methamphetamine from recipes downloaded from the Internet with chemicals bought in feed stores or pharmacies.
While these home “meth labs” produce only a small portion of the drug used in the U.S., they have produced much of the “buzz” about meth because they are toxic and explosive and risk the health of small children and neighbors.
Methamphetamine abuse and the scourge of “meth labs” are red meat for prosecutors and legislators. As a former prosecutor, I can sympathize with the urge to do anything and everything possible to bring a problem like this under control. The public appreciates aggressive attacks on problems like meth abuse, but that same public wants the attacks to consist of something more than photo-ops or illusory solutions.
Unfortunately in the war against meth abuse, too much of the action looks more like photo-ops and less like a real solution.
Take the state legislatures, for example. In an effort to shut down home production of meth, more than half of the states have, in a knee-jerk fashion, enacted restrictions on access to a chemical (pseudo ephedrine or PSE) — the decongestant found in common over-the-counter (OTC) cold, flu and allergy medicines. PSE is also a precursor chemical used by criminals to manufacture homemade meth. Seven states have gone so far as to put products containing PSE on Schedule V of the Controlled Substances Schedule — not because the products themselves are dangerous, but because a small percentage of buyers would misuse them to make a dangerous drug.
The problem with scheduling PSE as a controlled substance is it unfairly restricts a transaction that occurs innocently millions of times a day at grocery stores, drug stores, convenience marts across the country. It removes these products from every store except a pharmacy with a licensed pharmacist. In the pharmacies, it takes them off the shelves and puts them behind the pharmacist’s counter. It places an undue burden on mothers buying Claritin-D for their children — requiring them to slink to the back of the pharmacy, find the pharmacist, ask for the drug, show ID, sign-in, and be subject to scrutiny. All this is required to ensure this otherwise lawful product doesn’t find its way into the hands of criminals.
This kind of police-state intrusion might be acceptable — the way we accept limits on personal freedoms to fight terrorism — if it were curtailed methamphetamine abuse.
Unfortunately, there is no compelling evidence this strategy is all that effective. While Oklahoma claimed putting PSE on Schedule V caused a 55 percent drop in the number of home meth lab arrests the following year, it is just as likely the same law’s no bail provisions for suspects arrested for meth abuse, contributed to the decline. In fact, in the Midwest alone, DEA statistics showed five states that did not use Schedule V had even greater reductions in home lab busts than Oklahoma — ranging from 63 to 73 percent.
Some experts speculate recent volume increases in Mexican- and Canadian-produced and smuggled methamphetamine are making street meth plentiful, reducing the willingness of meth addicts to hassle with multiple trips to the grocery store and the risks of home meth manufacture.
The point is we can make it more difficult and costly for home meth labs to operate without reducing law-abiding citizens’ civil liberties. And remember, this whole policy is only aimed at putting the home labs out of business; it is not aimed at eliminating or even reducing the overall U.S. supply of methamphetamine — more than 80 percent of which is now smuggled over the border or produced in U.S. super labs that acquire PSE in bulk. In fact, that source is increasing and will do so even more if home production is curtailed.
We can make home production of meth much more difficult and less attractive with a few simple changes restricting meth producers’ and addicts’ access to PSE, without the collateral damage of a Schedule V listing.
Many states now require that products containing PSE be placed in special locked cases or under the watchful eye of the cashier or even at the cashier’s counter. The federal government has already placed limits on how much PSE a consumer can buy at one time. These existing controls could be enhanced by a requirement aimed specifically at preventing sales to known meth offenders.
Under this approach, cashiers would determine at point of sale that purchasers have not been convicted of offenses related to meth production, distribution or consumption, by checking a national registry to be established by an act of Congress. Convicted offenders would be registered in the database and required to update their information annually for 10 years.
Retailers would link point-of-sale transactions to the national database and automatically run credit or bank card information against the offender file and identify potentially risky sales.
For cash sales, retailers would request a picture ID from the purchaser and would compare ID information to the database to determine if a sale could be made. Purchasers who were a match to an offender in the database would not be permitted to purchase the product without a prescription.
This approach would avoid making innocent cold, flu or allergy sufferers the victims and would still adequately restrict access to PSE products to make a dent in home meth lab operations. It is critical we succeed in shutting down home meth labs. But we can do so without turning the whole world of over-the-counter cold medicine into a nightmare of restrictions and bureaucracy that makes that runny nose, sinus congestion or headache more miserable for all of us.
Dennis C. Vacco is a former New York state attorney general.