"Meth" - new epidemic, old drug

By Chuck Armsbury, Sr. Editor of the Razor Wire

The 'meth epidemic' has ignited fears of backyard explosions and poor, white people with rotten teeth, bad attitudes and dangerous actions. Seldom a day goes by without hearing of another 'meth bust.' Heavily armed soldiers smashing through front doors dominate media images. Is this a war on drugs or a war on people?

More people are coming to the conclusion that prohibition laws and zero-tolerance thinking, translated into laws, have driven controlled substance manufacturing out of the pharmaceutical industry, where it was done competently, and into the hands of 'bootleggers.'

Remember those jumpin' 50s, 60s, and 70s? Amphetamines were the nation's diet pills. More plentiful than McDonald's hamburgers, they had mainstream public acceptance. Using amphetamines to control a super-sized appetite was socially acceptable; to use 'speed' as a psychological stimulant, or 'upper,' was reserved for truckers, then bikers, and viewed as serious abuse.

While housewives buzzed around, following any fad diet in1971, Congress, worried only about bikers, considered moving amphetamines and methamphetamine to a more restrictive Schedule II. With profits on prescriptions sure to plummet, the pharmaceutical industry pointed to President John Kennedy's use of 'uppers' in office, especially on the grueling occasion of the Khruschev summit. If Kennedy was 'on speed' while conducting sensitive global negotiations, what complaint could government have about responsible use of amphetamines by ordinary people? Amphetamines, 'diet pills,' were put on the less restrictive schedule, but didn't stay there long.

Through the 80s unto this day the most popular 'upper' is Ritalin, a drug permitted for children who must make sensitive school negotiations, and so teachers dispense it to more and more children every year. It's a performance-enhancing drug, increasing children's' ability to focus.

'Uppers' have been around since 1908 when a group of chemical compounds were discovered to have dramatic effects on human behavior. Ninety years later, the illegal form of the old drug - and similar to problems with bathtub gin and moonshine - produces overdoses and explosions, what many drug reformers call a consequence of prohibition.

Many of us can remember how 'bennies,' the pill-form of amphetamine, disappeared from the market, and were quickly replaced with powders of dubious pedigree. Called 'crank', 'crystal', now 'meth', there is no potency or dosage control, critical factors that were previously handled invisibly for consumers by trained, regulated chemists in the pharmaceutical industry.

Rotting teeth is an indicator of serious physical damage, and clandestine meth-lab chemists perform the most dangerous form of chemistry, sometimes resulting in a shotgun reaction. There's a lot of amateur chemistry being passed around in this unregulated atmosphere, and it's deadly.

Raw chemicals mixed in bathtubs are generally bad news, and a Pew Research Poll found three out of four US citizens concluding the war on drugs has failed. In a recent poll conducted by the ACLU, 75% of the population was dissatisfied with the entire criminal justice system.

So what is to be done that's better than battering in trailer-house and shanty doors of the poor and addicted? Treatment works. A 1994 study by the RAND Corporation found that treatment is 10 times more cost effective than interdiction in reducing the use of cocaine in the US. The government-ordered study also found that every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs.

While politicians remain uncritically concerned with increasing police departments' budgets to 'fight meth,' voters should know that the RAND study also found that additional domestic law enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs of drug abuse and addiction. Comparing cost of treatment to cost of incarcerating addicts, treatment is fiscally responsible and avoids the harms experienced by people sent to prison for drug law violations.

In one of many studies scrutinizing government policies, The 1997 National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study found that with treatment: drug selling decreased by 78%, shoplifting declined by almost 82%, and assaults declined by 78%. Furthermore, there was a 64% decrease in arrests for any crime, and the percentage of people who largely supported themselves through illegal activity dropped by nearly half, decreasing more than 48%.

A healthy economy works, too. Drug abuse and addiction follow the same curve as a community's unemployment rate.

Scotland officials have recently begun a national discussion, claiming that zero-tolerance drug war programs are damaging public health. International support for humane treatment of addicts and legalization of scheduled 'soft' drugs such as marijuana is now common discourse throughout South America and Europe. Almost one-third of US voters supports marijuana legalization. The State of Louisiana has admitted that harsh drug sentencing laws were not only fiscally irresponsible, but also immoral. They currently are releasing thousands of drug prisoners.

It's time for sea changes in our thinking about drugs, legal and illegal. In a period of budget restraint, can we afford to continue ineffective, expensive, inhumane policies that favor incarceration over education and treatment?

It takes a great human being to admit wrong, but that's exactly what November Coalition and other drug law reform groups are demanding of US leaders. Our policymakers should admit that the war on drugs is failed and adopt humane and effective drug policies.

Editor's Note: Thanks to Rod Campbell for many of the facts and arguments in this article. This editorial was also printed in Perspectives, a Sunday special to the Spokane, WA newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, on March 24, 2002.

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information: moreinfo@november.org
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