Tuesday, January 24, 2006

'War on Sniffles' worsens public safety

Note to drug warriors: Whatever laws you choose to write, the laws of supply and demand will remain in effect. And those laws trump yours -- every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

In the New York Times this morning, Kate Zernike has an item detailing the futility of what
Kip Esquire calls the "War on Sniffles" -- restrictions by states on sale of pseudoephedrine products aimed at reducing methamphetamine production (See "Potent Mexican meth floods in as states curb domestic variety," NYT, Jan. 23).

I've
discussed these laws in the past and the absurdly counterproductive results we've seen from them in Texas and Oklahoma. From a public safety perspective, they've been a complete bust, mostly because:
"The Mexican drug cartels were right there to feed that demand," said Tom Cunningham, the drug task force coordinator for the district attorneys council for Oklahoma, the first state to put pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters, in 2004. "They have always supplied marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. When we took away the local meth lab, they simply added methamphetamine to the truck."
Most interesting to me, not only have these new laws failed to reduce drug use or prevent Mexican suppliers from entering the market, they've actually increased the number of overdoses and drug-related thefts, thus reducing public safety where the laws have been enacted. Reported Zernike:
Sometimes called ice, crystal methamphetamine is far purer, and therefore even more highly addictive, than powdered home-cooked methamphetamine, a change that health officials say has led to greater risk of overdose. And because crystal methamphetamine costs more, the police say thefts are increasing, as people who once cooked at home now have to buy it. ...

"Our burglaries have just skyrocketed," said Jerry Furness, who represents Buchanan County, 150 miles northeast of Des Moines, on the Iowa drug task force. "The state asks how the decrease in meth labs has reduced danger to citizens, and it has, as far as potential explosions. But we've had a lot of burglaries where the occupants are home at the time, and that's probably more of a risk."
I'll bet the politicians who passed these ill-conceived laws don't put that quote on their campaign literature. Much of the overhyped political rhetoric surrounding the passage of Texas' law centered on protecting children of meth users. "Don't you care about children exposed to dangerous drugs?," a legislative staffer asked me last year. The implication was that opposition to pseudoephedrine restrictions meant you didn't care about children, but the Times reports that the situation may have actually worsened, and certainly didn't improve, as a result of the new laws:
although child welfare officials say they are removing fewer children from homes where parents are cooking the drug, the number of children being removed from homes where parents are using it has more than made up the difference.
So at best the law was a wash for kids, at worst more kids are exposed to meth use in the home. So what's the solution? It's the same as it ever was: reducing demand. Reducing supply in a vacuum just creates lucrative business opportunities for new suppliers. As one of the Times' sources put it:
"You can't legislate away demand," said Betty Oldenkamp, secretary of human services in South Dakota, where the governor this month proposed tightening a law that last year restricted customers to two packs of pseudoephedrine per store. "The law enforcement aspects are tremendously important, but we also have to do something to address the demand."
Actually it might be possible to "legislate" demand, or at least to legislate programs that help addicts fight their addiction instead of ostracizing and incarcerating them. You can only reduce demand one person at a time, and addicts won't seek help if they think they'll be imprisoned for decades as a result. A commitment to demand reduction would require that the same politicians who brought us the "tuff on crime" approach to the War on Sniffles shift gears, embracing pragmatism and eschewing demagoguery.

I wouldn't hold my breath.


See prior Grits coverage of this topic:

UPDATE: Read about the blogosphere's reaction to the Times article.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read this blog on a daily basis and strongly agree with you totally thus far. This is why i am writing you this question I have....I believe it was your blog that i linked to a site thru in which I read an article in which the writer stated something to the effect of the 'next civil rights movement needed to be in changing the criminal justice system in the u.s.'. I strongly agree with this comment. Futhermore, although I do not have a child old enough to use drugs yet I know many who do and some are dealing with dealing with the fear that their child will soon face prison time due to the fact that they've been charged with a drug related crime. Long prison sentences are for non-violent drug offenders are being handed out more and more it seems. I thought that the medical field declared that addiction was a disease a long time ago and it seems to me that these people are mostly just hurting themselves. Yet it seems that the criminal jsut. sys. locks more and more of them up everyday. It scares me to think that god-forbid my child might get involved in using drugs and then be imprisoned for decades because he couldn't stop and did something careless or wreckless as a result of his addiction. My neighbor's sisters son whom I have met and thought was a sweet young man was charged with conspiracy to manufacture meth and possession last month and his mother told my neighbor and I that the prosecuting attorney is hoping to see him get a 15 yr. sentence which in the state we live in he will have to do 7 of those years. My god this kid is only 22 yrs old and he has a young child and a wife! Don't people realize that they are tearing families apart and ruining lives!! What really outraged me was that later I watched a special on NBC where a man was busted on one of those sex-crimes shows where men show up at a home they think a child they have arranged to meet over the internet and have sex with lives. The showed a clip of one of the men they busted who admited he had been caught before and charged with having sex with a 15 yr old boy and was still on PROBATION! PROBATION! What the hell is wrong with this country's legal system? Can they not see something wrong with a system that gives a addicts 15 yr. sentences for drugs and then probation to man that has sex with children??? WE have to do something about this! Anyone with a child should think "this could happen to my kid someday unless I speak out about it and help to change the laws"!

Anonymous said...

O.k. sorry I did have a question but got called away from my computer so....The thing I wanted to ask you is if a person like me(non-professional, individual citizen)w/concern about a particular issue wanted to form a "group" or "club" that supports changing the laws and how they are enforced(like me and my concern over the way the US criminal justice system treats drug addicts and their crimes) Just How would I go about that? I am so passionate about this issue-mostly b/c I am a parent-that I'm truely interested in trying to make a difference by appealing to "the people". By trying to encourage others to voice their own opinion and experiences I would like to force lawmakers to change things and make our system at least a little bit more equal
than it is now. I have seen throughout my own lifetime the impacts that groups like "M.A.D.D." have had on both social awareness and the laws concerning drunk driving. I would be interested in forming a group with the same passion and concern that MADD showed about the negative impact the harsh drug laws have on the American family! I don't necessarily expect people to respond the way that they have to MADD but I do feel strongly enough about the issue to make the effort to 'start something'. So, I suppose that I am asking you:If you had any ideas on how I can best go about this and what tools I should use. I have already seen thru my daily ritual of reading a number of blogs like yours that creating a blog may be helpful but I have never had my own blog and don't know how to go about it. Sorry for the long, drawn-out quest./post.I just felt as if you may be the kind of person who knew a little about how one might go about this and that may actually see why I feel the way that I do. Thank You, Catonya

Anonymous said...

Just to further confirm what you already know - the demand for drugs is is pretty inelastic, one of the reasons the drug war fails to curb drug use. Please see the article written by Becker, Gary, Kevin Murphy, and Michael Grossman. "The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs." Journal of Political Economy 114:1.
here: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-01/uocp-hea011106.php
It's certainly not the first time a Nobel Prize winner has ascribed to the thought that the drug war is futile.

Danika said...

I was reading the comments from anonymous yest. and thought of this website I logged on to after reading a blog I frequent and usually disagree with called "deathequalsmeth". There is a new "M.A.D.D" group out there only it's called "MAMa" for 'mothers against meth'. What a load of crap. I anonymous isn't hoping to start some crack-headed group like this one because believe me those women don't have love in their hearts for meth addicts they want to further destroy them and tear their families apart. That my friends is what the so called "War on Drugs" actually is-it's a war being fought against addicts and a war destroying the American family(or at least the families with less than $50,000 to shell out when daddy gets caught cookin up a little motivation in the basement). Harsher laws for drug offenders isn't the answer. Tolerance and a totally new direction is what is needed if people are gonna get clean and become happy law-abiding citizens. I know. I was one of those crazy meth addicts a year ago and now I'm not-and it wasn't a lengthy prison sentence that got me hear. Thanks for lettin' me rant! Dani.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not sure what to tell you about what group to join or start to work on these topics. It sort of depends on where you are. ACLU has chapters in many TX cities, but not all of them are active on drug policy. If you joined them and started working on it, though, then they would be, you know? That's sort of how the activism world works sometimes. There's nobody working on an issue until there is, and after that there's someplace to go, if that makes sense.

That said, I'd like to see more people working these issues in the poltiical parties -- it's too late to run for precinct chair, but not too late to go to your chosen party's precinct convention (on the night of the March primary), propose drug policy reform resolutions to the party platform, then go to the county convention to promote them and engage in the political process. That's something anybody can do anywhere, whether you're an R or a D.

In the religious community in Texas, the Restorative Justice Ministries Network might be a good fit. If you're a student, try Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Another group that does good work on these topics is the Drug Policy Alliance, though they're unlikely to have a local presence where you are already. Comb through the links in the column on the right and look around for more options. Buena suerte,

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