Drug Policy

Speed 5: This Time for Sure!

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First the government encouraged illicit production of methamphetamine by restricting access to legal speed. Then it encouraged pseudoephedrine-based production by banning or restricting other precursors. Appalled by all the scary, toxic, flammable meth labs that subsequently popped up around the country, it restricted access to cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine, forcing customers to ask pharmacists for them, sign a registry, and abide by quantity limits. Those restrictions, in turn, encouraged a shift to the "shake and bake" method for producing meth, which is less complicated and does not require as much pseudoephedrine but is in some ways more dangerous and more environmentally destructive. The next logical step, according to Lincoln County, Oregon, District Attorney Rob Bovett, is to require a prescription for products containing pseudoephedrine, thereby banning all over-the-counter sales. This time for sure!

In a New York Times op-ed piece (noted this morning by Radley Balko), Bovett suggests that a prescription requirement would not have much impact on consumers, since it would affect "only 15 pharmaceutical products and their generic equivalents." If the number of products containing pseudoephedrine, an inexpensive and effective decongestant, is smaller than it used to be, that might have something to do with the fact that treating consumers like criminals while making them jump through new hoops to buy their favored remedies tends to put a damper on demand. Many companies reformulated their products in response to the new restrictions (which took effect nationally in 2006), replacing pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine, which seems to be about as effective as a placebo but can be purchased without seeking permission from a state-appointed gatekeeper. A prescription requirement, which would add the cost and inconvenience of a medical appointment to the barriers, would be fatal to this product category.

I do not accept Bovett's blithe assumption that any inconvenience and discomfort imposed upon cold and allergy sufferers is justified by the need to prevent people from getting high, since I do not think preventing people from getting high is a legitimate function of government. But even if it were, there is no reason to believe that requiring a prescription for cold and allergy remedies would accomplish that end (or, as the headline on his piece puts it, "Kill the Meth Monster"—an unusually candid acknowledgment that drug warriors mainly fight chimerical threats of their own invention). Bovett concedes but is completely undeterred by the fact that the vast majority of illicit meth consumed in this country is supplied not by mom-and-pop labs or mobile shake-and-bakers but by large criminal organizations based in Mexico, which do not buy their pseudoephedrine a couple of packs at a time from Rite Aid. And even if all the world's pseudoephedrine could be magically eliminated, other methods of production would be used instead. Time and time again, the black market in drugs has proven highly adaptable since the government created it nearly a century ago.

What Rob Bovett actually demands, then, is that people sacrifice cheap, safe, and effective medicine so he and like-minded authoritarians can look like they are fighting drug abuse. The proper response to this plea is a snot-filled sneeze of contempt.

Previous coverage of the pseudoephedrine crackdown here.