Drug Policy

Congress Restricted Access to Allergy Pills, and All I Got Was This Runny Nose

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The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has delayed release of this year's National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment, which is prepared annually by the National Drug Intelligence Center, "in an apparent effort to minimize diplomatic turbulence with the Mexican government." According to the Times, which obtained a copy of the report, it portrays Mexican drug cartels, the main suppliers of illicit methamphetamine consumed by Americans, "as easily able to circumvent the Mexican government's restrictions on the importing of chemicals used to manufacture meth, which has reached its highest purity and lowest price in the United States since 2005."

The story focuses on the diplomatic angle, but that last part of the sentence is worth repeating, because it illustrates the futility of supply-side efforts to discourage drug use: Meth "has reached its highest purity and lowest price in the United States since 2005." That was the year of the Combat Meth Act, which imposed federal restrictions on the sale of cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine, a meth precursor. (Similar, sometimes stricter limits already had been imposed by various states.) "This legislation is a dagger at the heart of meth manufacturing in America," declared Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), co-sponsor of the law. Evidently Talent's objection was not to meth per se but to meth made in America. The main effect of the pseudoephedrine restrictions, aside from inflicting inconvenience and discomfort on millions of cold and allergy sufferers, has been to drive production from domestic mom-and-pop labs to large-scale Mexican traffickers.

Closing down the amateurs might be counted as a gain for health and safety, had the pseudoephedrine crackdown not fostered local production methods that are in some ways more dangerous and environmentally destructive. In any event, this reverse-protectionist policy has nothing to do with "combat[ing] meth," if by that the law's authors meant discouraging use of the drug. A successful effort to reduce supply would have led to higher prices and lower purity, exactly the opposite of what has happened since the government started making it such a pain in the ass to obtain a cheap, effective decongestant.

Since this approach has been a demonstrable failure, drug warriors naturally want to pursue it more aggressively. Forcing people who want cold and allergy pills to ask the pharmacist for them, present ID, enter their names in an electronic register, and abide by quantity limits (at the risk of arrest) has done nothing to reduce meth consumption (which has been declining since 2000 or so). So why not demand that they ask a doctor for permission as well? Surely that will foil those Mexican drug cartels.