Our Meth Problem: The Devil We Know vs. The Devil We Don't Know

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The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations is pushing to make cold medicine with pseudoephedrine available by prescription only in order to try to bring Tennessee's meth problem under control. TBI Director Mark Gwyn even wrote a lovely piece for the Tennessean about the wonders of prescription-only pseudoephedrine.

Gwyn warns us of the growing menace of meth: "2010 was a record-breaking year, with law enforcement in the state seizing 2,082 meth labs." And that is terrible. And scary. Meth is a shitty drug and, if you've ever known anyone hooked on it, you know what an understatement that is. Added to that, the problems caused by meth labs — tiny, terrible toxic dumps — are hard to overestimate. And it would be nice — lovely, even — if all it takes to fix our meth problem is making pseudoephedrine available by prescription only.

But, people of Tennessee, it's not going to be that easy.

First, we have to acknowledge that the move in 2006 to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, which was supposed to be a major victory in our war on meth, ended up being an utter failure. Not only did our meth busts only temporarily decrease before starting to climb back upwards, we created a whole new layer of criminal behavior that didn't exist before — the non-meth users who procure cold medicine to sell to meth makers.

According to the AP, "Because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, [cold medicine procurers] can buy a box of pills for $7 to $8 and sell it for $40 or $50."

And think of this: It's virtually impossible to be further than 2 hours from another state in Tennessee. If every state surrounding us doesn't also make pseudoephedrine prescription-only, it's easy enough for the cold-medicine dealers to become cold-medicine smugglers — and shoot, it looks like pretty good business.

That "pretty good business" part can become a real problem. You'll notice the TBI touting the successes Oregon has had lowering their meth lab bust rates. But I looked at states closer in size to us. In 2009, Indiana had more than twice as many meth lab incidents as Tennessee, and Missouri had almost three times as many. But the other state closest in population to us — Arizona — only had 11 (DEA map).

Man — eleven! I say let's find out what Arizona is doing and do that!

Oh, hold on. Except it turns out that Arizona doesn't have meth labs because the methamphetamine market in Arizona is so lucrative that it's been worth the time of the Mexican drug cartels to get involved with it. Oregon, which has watched the price of a gram of meth increase from $107 in 2005 to $245 in 2007 (source) has even started to see more Mexican cartel involvement in the meth trade they have left, as the money starts to make the risks worth it.

Most meth labs busted in Missouri are very small. "Police describe Missouri’s meth production as taking place in small 'meth circles' rather than large operations. Think of 'moonshine' meth operations, rather than factories, and you’ve got the picture," says The Missourian.

If you look at the current seizure maps for Tennessee (scroll down to the bottom of this page to find them), you'll see that's literally true as well as figuratively — our highest meth-producing areas are the areas traditionally associated with moonshine.

We never did manage to eradicate moonshine production in our hills. If we couldn't convince those folks to give up illegal distilling, it's hard to imagine how the TBI thinks we're going to dissuade them from making meth.

And if we do dissuade them? If meth users can't just make their own or find someone local who makes it?

Are we inadvertently inviting in more organized crime? Do we trade moonshiners for drug cartels?

Gwyn doesn't say. But it's something we should think about — whether the devil we know is better than the devil we don't know.

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