Thursday, May 01, 2008

Redefining drug war success

In a story in The Economist today about the decline in meth lab busts caused by restrictions on pseudoephedrine, the magazine offers this backhanded praise for the policies, despite evidence that drug subsitution and Mexican imports have largely supplanted domestic demand:
This does not mean the campaign against meth has been pointless. Far from it. The shift from a cottage industry to a well-run international business was good, because it meant amateur meth cooks were no longer setting fire to their children. Moving people onto other, slightly less harmful drugs is no bad thing, either. So grim was the methamphetamine experience in Pierce county that some view the rise of crack cocaine with relief.
That's perhaps the most succinct statement I've seen of the overall benefits from pseudoephedrine restrictions, which I've written about fairly extensively on Grits. The argument contains within it an interesting set of economic assumptions, chief among them:

"The shift from a cottage industry to a well-run international business was good."

That's a fascinating statement because the "well-run international business" they're talking about are the Mexican drug cartels who're responsible for thousands of murders in Mexico and number among the most ruthless organized crime gangs on the planet.

Still, it'd be hard to deny the Gulf, Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels are "well-run" businesses in some sense. They certainly seem constantly six steps ahead of governments on both sides of the border. But normally in The Economist you might expect the definition of a "well-run" business to include, at a minimum, legal status for major market players.

I also agree it's a good thing that "amateur meth cooks were no longer setting fire to their children," though the flip side to that is that it was pretty easy for the cartels to add meth to their distribution mix, so the policy inflated cartel profits and gave them a lot more money in the very short term to buy more guns to fight Mexican government troops.

If in the near future the US dumps to $1.4 billion into Mexico to aid that fight, as the President has proposed, US policies will in essence be financing both sides of the fight.

I also find interesting the analysis that "Moving people onto other, slightly less harmful drugs is no bad thing." I agree. However, where is the ordered list public policymakers can rely on to decide which drugs are safer than others? Given all the hype a few years ago about the dangers of crack, when shifting drug users TO crack cocaine has been re-defined as a public policy success, that's an interesting moment.

The argument reminds me of the Colorado-based group - SAFER - that won a municipal referendum in Denver based on the campaign theme that marijuana is "safer than alcohol," but it's especially odd to see the argument made when the "safer" drug is crack cocaine.

This Economist article is definitely moving the bar for what we're supposed to define as "success" in the drug war. We've come a long way from "Just say no."


Unknown said...

I wonder what effect Mexico's PE ban will have on the supply of meth in the US over the next 6- to 18-months.

I would suspect that once it becomes difficult to import large quantities of PE to Mexico, two things happen: first, the street price of meth rises in the US, and second, production in Mexico shifts from "ice" to "crank" made in smaller operations, but in a much more widely distributed network.

I have another question, only slightly related: what happened to MDMA? My understanding is that crackdowns at the source in Europe (among other things) caused producers to move their manufacturing to Central and South America. I've seen some numbers to suggest that use in the US has been declining over the past few years, and this suggests to me that the relocation has not been "successful". Anyone know anything about this?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You know, Chase, I should have mentioned this in the post because I've written about the topic in the past, but with the mountains of new imports from China, which is where I understand a lot of the pseudoephedrine for Mexican meth labs is coming from, I don't think the cartels will actually have a big problem smuggling pseudoephedrine into Mexico, probably in the same boats in which the transport Afghan heroin.

Your larger point, though, about substitution, is utterly valid. That's almost a baseline assumption in the Economist article, that drug use can't be driven down and that it's a "success" when less harmful drugs (like crack?!) are substituted by addicts for their first preference.

I've not seen much coverage recently about MDMA, except the interesting news that it's being used in Israel on war trauma victims. I heard a lecture awhile back about possible therapeutic MDMA uses, but I'd not previously heard of human testing before this recent news.

Anonymous said...

People don't use MDMA the same way they use methamphetamine or cocaine. It has a built-in anti-abuse feature: it stops feeling good after 2 or 3 doses... you have to take several days up to a week off... that makes it hard to become a true addict and of course the profit is limitied when the users don't get hooked.

Also the um... lets say "raw material" is more tightly controlled than (pseudo)ephedrine... that stuff was everywhere because it was the only OTC sinus remedy that actually worked.

Anyway, I think the semi-OTC model for ephedrine should be applied to other medicines. Surely this would save consumers a lot of money if they didnt need a perscriptions for the less dangerous drugs. Heck if people are happy that the addicts are "only using crack" then maybe Methadone or Oxycotin could be moved to the semi-OTC model.

Anonymous said...

"Given all the hype a few years ago about the dangers of crack, when shifting drug users TO crack cocaine has been re-defined as a public policy success, that's an interesting moment."

That is stunning. I've heard of the pendulum effect.... but I didn't know it was that quick and sudden.

It is a very "Interesting moment", indeed.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's a kind of 'battle fatigue', induced by the continual parade of failures despite all the effort spent on this 'war', to see something like this as being a 'positive'. Just another example of the balloon being squeezed. Only now, the resultant, wholly predictable and pointless bulge is being called a 'victory'.

Unknown said...

I'm sure that Mexican cartels will figure out a way to import some pseudoephedrine. But the Mexican ban, if enforced with equal parts vigilance and consistency, will be certain to increase the costs of importation.

The ban of a critical precursor is a direct strike at what made Mexico an almost ideal location for meth production--official ambivalence. Although a new law on the books cannot keep all pseudoephedrine from reaching producers south of the border, it's a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

There are dozens of other methods for produces methamphetamine that do not require ephedrine.

Many scale up better to higher production volume and produce a cleaner product.

The catch is the process requires some degree of laboratory skill and also the precursors are more heavily regulated than ephedrine.

Now you gotta figure the cartel guys have access to real chemists because of their, um... other business. So if the government of Mexico clamps down on pseduoephedrine, the cartels might just skip straight to phenylacetone.

Anonymous said...

As desire is endless,so will be the, socalled, war on drugs. People have wants, and governments want to control people. Purposely designed to be never ending ,the socalled, war on drugs will continue forever.And new substances desired,inevitably, will come on to the market. Of course, all bets are off if the government runs out of money. If the money runs out for ,the socalled, war on drugs, the government will simply start a new kind of war.Thats what governments do.

ms_saul said...

Re defining as success the reduction of meth labs in the US resulting in an increase in Mexican cartel distribution: I suppose the success is that (a) the meth labs are not on American soil and (b) the people being killed are not Americans (and therefore are easier to marginalize).

Also easier for Americans to deal with is the perception that all people killed by the Mexican cartels are in some way involved with the drug business (never mind that's not true), as compared to white, rural, American teens.

The move to Mexican cartels is also better in terms of efficiency. Let's face it - we don't have enough police in the country to deal with the rural meth cottage industry. On the other hand, we have several highly-trained law enforcement agencies that spend a great deal of time studying/fighting the "well-run" drug cartels. Keeping it contained means at least we have an eye on it (although, admittedly, it's similar to how we have an "eye" on Osama because we know what geographic area he's in).

Pat Rogers said...

The 2005 Combat Meth Act is one of the finest examples ever of the ballooning effect. Even the federal government admits this.

It is also one of the big reasons that I do not support Barack Obama. He proudly proclaims, on his official senate web site, that he is a co-sponsor of the 2005 Combat Meth Act.

I wrote about it here: Barack Obama: A Stereotype of Conventional Wisdom

The 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment of the National Drug Intelligence Center, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department, analyzed the outcome of the 2005 Combat Meth Act this way:

"Methamphetamine production and distribution trends are undergoing significant strategic shifts, resulting in new challenges to law enforcement and public health agencies. For example, marked success in decreasing domestic methamphetamine production through law enforcement pressure and strong precursor chemical sales restrictions has enabled Mexican DTOs to rapidly expand their control over methamphetamine distribution—even in eastern states—as users and distributors who previously produced the drug have sought new, consistent sources. These Mexican methamphetamine distribution groups (supported by increased methamphetamine production in Mexico) are often more difficult for local law enforcement agencies to identify, investigate, and dismantle because they typically are much more organized and experienced than local independent producers and distributors. Moreover, these Mexican criminal groups typically produce and distribute high purity ice methamphetamine that usually is smoked, potentially resulting in a more rapid onset of addiction to the drug."

Anonymous said...

One offshoot of the "war on drugs",not too often discussed, is that of restrictions and controls over drugs that can adversely affect individuals who legitimately need drugs for pain control and mood management.

Physicians who might, otherwise, prescribe a drug for a patient based on temporary or chronic need - or, as might be indicated - will err on the side of protecting his license (his ass) (or just to avoid what he thinks might be scrutiny by FDE)rather than alleviating the pain and suffering of his patient.

Thus, as soon as a drug is placed on a controlled substances list by DEA, many doctors will, often, re-
fuse to prescribe those drugs. So, In many instances if you need medication for depression. etc, your primary care doctor might tell you that you must get those drugs from a pychiatrist ...thus,causing a patient to spend more money to get an office visit with a second doctor that the first doctor could have taken care of.

Also, because some people abuse drugs there seems to be a post hoc ergo propter hoc presumption that all patients will abuse drugs. As soon as there is any compound (chemical or natural) that has the ability to make people feel good,it is regarded as evil...and FDE will rush to regulate or criminalize its use. No doubt if we learn to synthesize endorphins, FDE would list it as a controlled substance.

Such scenarios can,indeed,lead to tragic results in the real world. I still feel sorrow for that very old man in Florida, who shot his equally elderly wife after she begged him repeatedly to shoot her - due to her agonizing cancer pain. Her doctor had told her she was terminal with less that a year to live. Yet, that doctor refused to give her adequate doses of morphine stating he was concerned it might addict her(ridiculous).The state callously charged the man with murder even though he had multitudes of relatives,friends and others who testified that he and his wife had been inseparable and in love since childhood. Nevertheless, the man was convicted and sent to prison. Justice?

60 minutes did a segment on that case. They contrasted that case with the way England deals with a
similar case over there. It showed a woman set up with a drip injection of morphine working in her of pain and living her final days in peace and

What good is it to have such drugs available if they are not accessible?

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