So it’s now illegal to buy some OTC cold medications in Texas and Oregon because of the fear of methamphetamine abuse. I’ve had to report on this idiocy over at FierceHealthcare without commenting on how stupid it is, but here I can. Luckily for me, the good people at the Drug War Chronicle have done a great piece of reporting on the subject. So where is the wave of meth sweeping the nation and destroying communities? It’s on the cover of Newsweek so it must be true! Well, funnily enough it isn’t happening, and the data shows that the number of schoolkids using meth, people showing up in emergency rooms because of meth, and those reporting in the government’s own household surveys that they’re using meth, is the same that it’s been for 20 years. Here’s another excellent article in Slate debunking the whole epidemic myth.
So what has changed? Well it would be optimistic to think that people have realized the idiocy of the drug war, and the Administration has clearly come up against serious resistance to its stance about persecution of pain doctors and medical marijuana users. What passes for official drug policy in this country now centers on attacking marijuana use — and why wouldn’t it, as there aren’t sufficient numbers of users of any other drug to arrest 750,000 of them each year, and then justify the $30-$60 billion we spend each year on the "War on Drugs". But unfortunately I doubt that the as misplaced focus on marijuana is the real reason for the outcry about meth. Instead we have to look to the main proponents of the war on drugs — America’s always hungry law enforcement agencies.
Out in the locales the law enforcement agencies of America, always interested in figuring where the next honey pot of funding is coming from, have decided to make a big noise about methamphetamine. That’s why in a recent survey of Sheriff’s departments 60% said Meth was their biggest problem. Of course if use isn’t going up, but arrests and lab busts are, then something else is going on. There are now sufficiently high numbers of smaller home-cooked meth labs that task-forces can be set up to raid them, and plenty of law enforcement types can be deployed to bust them. The end result is that the amateur criminals will leave the market, and it will be turned over to much more vicious drug gangs, probably run out of Mexico — but that gives law enforcement an excuse for even more fundraising.
Of course the fact that the same things now being said about the evils of meth were said about crack in the 1980s, heroin in the 1960s, marijuana in the 1930s, opium in the 1900s and alcohol before that, may suggest that a) the law enforcement solution to these drugs isn’t a solution (and isn’t intended to be a solution!) and b) that we’ve seen this movie before. In some countries, notably Switzerland and Holland, there is controlled dispensing of various hard drugs to addicts. The result has been a drop in crime rates, anti-social behavior, disease, addiction and even unemployment amongst addicts. And those programs are supported by the local police, who for some bizarre reason think that their job is to improve law and order in society, rather than to just get bigger budgets and go on paramilitary raids.
Let’s be real, speed/amphetamine use has been around for ever and most of it comes from big pharma. My father told me that he took speed to stay awake to study for his final exams at Cambridge — I was at a talk about intelligence boosting drugs this week where I heard that 15-20% of college student are taking Ritalin, which is basically speed, to get through their exams. My dad seemed to do OK, and I suspect that today’s college kids will make it out alright too! (Incidentally, baseball players call playing without taking speed "playing naked" and the US airforce issues speed to its pilots on a regular basis!)
For a minority of users of any drug addiction is a problem (although apparently for tobacco it’s not a minority). But of course treating addiction like a health problem isn’t good for business — when your business is based on arresting people, locking them up, and having the taxpayer fund it.