The damage done by drug abuse and drug-related crime is enormous, and continues to radiate across American communities. Heroin deaths have recently captured national headlines. Another drug with devastating impact is methamphetamine. We need to think about ending the meth crisis now, because thanks to DEA, Congress, and the advance of science, we are getting closer to being able to do that. There are no panaceas, but we need to take the next step toward reducing the proliferation of meth labs.
Meth is produced by thousands of so-called “mom and pop” labs across the United States, and it is having a devastating influence on this country. It is affecting public safety every day from Missouri to Massachusetts, Georgia to California. These labs bring young lives to a sudden, tragic end, and leave others with extreme brain damage. The secondary effects can be horrific, from spewing toxins into the community and causing houses to blow up to funding gangs, destroying families and spiking violent crime. In short, small-time meth production is now a major national quandary.
Understanding how we got to this point, and how we get out of it, is now the responsibility of Congress and the DEA. While in Congress, I focused on the drug issue – and did so in a bipartisan way. One outgrowth of that focus was formation of the Bipartisan Drug Policy Working Group, which I co-chaired with Congressman Charles Rangel, and which was eventually taken over by Speaker Dennis Hastert. About a decade ago, after I had served in Congress, the sitting president and Congress tried to address the meth issue with a new law. That law was intended to help curb use of pseudoephedrine by these small meth producers. The goal was laudable, but our means were limited. At that time, there were no scientific technologies available for making pseudoephedrine tamper resistant and extremely difficult to use for meth making. Congress and that administration took the next best approach: they imposed limiting quantities and requiring people sign for pseudoephedrine products when buying them.
For a time, this approach worked. But then the statute floundered. The small time, one-pot meth producers have – in the past decade – learned ways to circumvent the laws by having multiple people with multiple fake identifications purchase the amounts of pseudoephedrine needed to fuel their meth labs. This is commonly called “smurfing,” and it has exploded. The problem has been that we had, until now, no scientifically reliable way to prevent the production of meth via pseudoephedrine. We were stuck.
We are no longer stuck. It is time that we catch up with these small-volume producers and shut them down. In 2014, we can – but DEA needs to know this is a congressional imperative. Science has now caught up with the problem. We have options now. The options vary, but science is now able to render pseudoephedrine products impractical for street producers of meth, and we can put today’s meth cooks out of business. As a nation, this should now represent an urgent, bipartisan priority. We have been bipartisan before, and we need to be again.
Recently I have seen public statements by those who have, as I have, pushed to make this issue a priority. I observe that former U.S. House Speaker Hastert, who led much of the anti-drug legislation in his era, has pressed our national leaders in both parties to take the meth problem more seriously. I agree with him, and with those of both parties, trying to do so. Meth abuse reportedly costs the American people more than 20 billion dollars a year. That is the dollar cost. But think about the personal costs, in lost lives, broken families, violence and fear of violence. A meth-resistant form of the leading precursor used to make this illegal narcotic, to the extent that it exists, should now be our priority.
We cannot afford to keep tricking ourselves into thinking we are winning against meth with current policies — we are not. If there is a way to make pseudoephedrine or any other legal medical substance available while reducing the risk that meth producers will use it for making meth, we should be pursuing it. If Congress can reaffirm that DEA has authority to do that, we will all be better for the effort. If DEA can press science into the field, we will now save lives we could not before.
In my years of supporting law enforcement while in Congress, we seldom saw genuine game-changing innovations. We saw drug-related tragedies in every state. Meth and other illegal drugs were the source of many of these tragedies. Over the past ten years, tens of thousands of young Americans have been damaged by meth. Meth-related murders and other homicides have topped 4,000. So, the question is this: If we can prevent such tragedies by harnessing science and helping law enforcement — why not do so? In short, if we can end today’s small volume meth lab crisis with meth-resistant precursors, let’s do it.
Written by William Zeliff.