Monday, February 07, 2005

Unnecessary Epidemic -Methamphetamine

There is a special investigative report Unnecessary Epidemic about Methamphetamine published by
The Oregonian newspaper. Here is a portion of Part One:

The siren of meth fuels crime and ravages communities across the West, but an analysis by The Oregonian shows sustained pressure by government could stop the . . .
Unnecessary epidemic

Sunday, October 03, 2004


A decade ago, federal authorities choked off the supply of chemicals needed to make methamphetamine, a cheap, potent stimulant that was devastating the West.

The drug grew scarce, and rehab centers saw fewer meth patients. Emergency rooms reported fewer meth overdoses. Fewer people were arrested for possessing the drug. Identity theft and car theft -- crimes typically committed by meth addicts -- fell in several Western cities.

Federal agents had vastly improved the quality of life, but they didn't know it.

Within a year, the drug cartels that make most of the nation's methamphetamine found new ways to obtain their ingredients, taking advantage of a loophole left open by Congress. As a result, meth use rebounded, and the epidemic spread eastward. Today, an estimated 1.3 million Americans smoke, snort or inject the drug.

An investigation by The Oregonian shows that Congress and federal authorities could have contained the methamphetamine epidemic, and still can.

The investigation establishes for the first time that methamphetamine traffickers are uniquely vulnerable to government pressure.

Methamphetamine differs from heroin and cocaine, which are distilled from plants grown across vast stretches of South America and Asia. Drug dealers create meth from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, chemicals used to make cough and cold remedies such as Sudafed. Only nine factories manufacture the bulk of the world's supply.

Deprive traffickers of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and the meth trade withers.

Peter Reuter, a leading drug expert and longtime skeptic of the government's ability to disrupt the drug trade, said The Oregonian's findings were startling. Reuter called them the first convincing evidence that government and law enforcement agencies could substantially reduce meth addiction.

The research, he said, shows that tightening control over the supply of meth chemicals would make "a significant difference to the criminal interests" while modestly inconveniencing consumers.

"I have been asked in the course of the presidential campaign, 'Why doesn't anyone talk about drugs?' " said Reuter, a University of Maryland professor who served on the Clinton administration's meth task force.

The answer, Reuter said, is that no candidate has a plausible approach.

"Here, you actually do have a better idea."

The Oregonian found striking correlations between government actions and meth abuse. In two periods -- 1995-96 and 1998-99 -- federal authorities interrupted the flow of chemicals to drug cartels. Each time, crime and addiction fell in tandem as the price of the drug rose.

The Oregonian discovered these previously overlooked successes by examining millions of reports on arrests, emergency room admissions, drug treatment, and the price and potency of meth seized by drug agents.

Until now, federal officials were unaware of the extent to which their policies succeeded.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began calling for much tighter control over ephedrine and pseudoephedrine nearly two decades ago.

But lawmakers were reluctant to interfere with the legitimate trade and said the DEA had no proof the approach would work. The pharmaceutical industry lobbied its allies on Capitol Hill and in the White House to delay or soften legislation that would have harmed the $3 billion market in popular cold products.

When Congress finally gave the DEA broad authority over the trade in pseudoephedrine in 1996, the agency did not take full advantage of the powers it had sought.

The agency allowed companies it licensed to continue selling cold medicine, even after 20, 30, 40 written warnings that their products were found in meth labs.

The DEA said it has tightened its registration program since 2000, when a number of officially approved dealers were charged with supplying pseudoephedrine to meth traffickers. In a written statement, the agency said it had "always considered" the control of meth chemicals a "high priority."

Meth abuse is particularly widespread in Oregon, which treats more people for meth addiction per capita than any other state in the country.

The drug, sold in powder or rock form, delivers an intense rush. A few hits cost just $25. Heavy users stay awake for days, growing paranoid and aggressive before crashing into sleep.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski now calls meth the most pressing crime issue facing the state. Police in Portland and surrounding suburbs say that meth users are responsible for thousands of identity thefts each year.

In rural communities such as Coos County on the Oregon coast, social workers say meth abuse plays a role in most cases of child abuse and neglect.

The story is repeated in communities across much of the country. More people are now in rehab for meth addiction than for cocaine or heroin in 16 states. And recent treatment data show the drug is rapidly drawing new users in places such as Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.

The problem has been slow to reach the attention of national policymakers, in part because the threat remains distant from the nation's major East Coast cities.

Authorities in Portland, Spokane, San Diego and Phoenix report that 25 percent to 38 percent of men arrested for any crime have methamphetamine in their bloodstream. The comparable rates in New York and Washington, D.C., are less than 1 percent.

Nancy Bukar, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, argues that the regional nature of the problem weighs against further restrictions on pseudoephedrine products.

"You've got to strike a balance here," said Bukar, whose group represents pharmaceutical companies. "Yes, they're being used in an illegitimate fashion by some people, but the major majority of people are using it for colds and to unstuff noses."

Over the past decade, meth traffickers have displayed an uncanny ability to outwit regulators and obtain their raw materials. But former DEA officials say the government has failed to make a concerted effort to deprive traffickers of two chemicals produced in only four countries.

The Oregonian's study shows that a national strategy to halt the flow of meth chemicals could be accomplished with little effect on consumers and relatively low cost to taxpayers.

Read the rest here.

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