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Meth Lab Reduction vs. Demand Reduction

A recent report by the Department of Human Services (DHS) in Oregon trumpeted a reduction in meth lab busts from 587 in 2001, to just 21 through the first ten months of 2006. The reasons for this reduction have to do with restrictions placed on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the main raw ingredient (precursor) in the manufacturing process. In 2004, medications containing pseudoephedrine were put behind the pharmacist's counter and since July, 2006, Oregon law has required a doctor's prescription for them. This strategy for reducing the availability of an illegal drug is called supply reduction, the theory being that if drugs are not available, people won't use them.

Even with restrictions in place, Oregon's DHS found that the number of meth abusers checking into treatment programs has remained the same, as has the number of drug arrests. This is not to say that supply reduction doesn't work but for it to be effective all supplies must be reduced and the cost of those efforts must not outweigh the benefits. At present, the slack created by the reduction in mom-and pop meth labs has been easily taken up by Mexican super labs set up by Mexican drug gangs, either in the United States or in Mexico. These labs were already providing 70% to 80% of the U.S. supplies. Pseudoephedrine is readily available in Mexico in spite of recent supply reduction efforts to limit importation of precursors from China and Germany.

The other two methods used to control drug use are demand reduction and harm reduction. Demand reduction involves prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies to reduce the need for drugs. This method has proven to work and is extremely cost effective. For example,

  • untreated addiction costs society and the addict $30,000 to $150,000 a year;
  • incarceration costs $20,000 to $30,000;
  • residential treatment costs $4,000 to $15,000;
  • and intensive outpatient treatment averages just $2,500.

California's CALDATA study found that for every $1 spent on treatment, $7 is saved in direct costs such as incarceration, theft, and absenteeism.

The other strategy, harm reduction, also involves prevention, intervention, and treatment but abstinence is not its primary goal; rather it is reducing the damage the drug use has on society and the individual user. Programs such as methadone maintenance, needle exchange, designated driver, and controlled drinking are some of the strategies. There is still much controversy concerning harm reduction.

Supply reduction makes the news; multi-ton drug busts and hundreds fewer mom and pop meth labs show that law enforcement is doing its job. Nevertheless, supply reduction is often a temporary solution given the porous nature of our borders, airports, and sea-lanes. The law of supply and demand mean that as long as demand remains constant, someone will find a way to make the lucrative drugs available. In other countries, an increasing demand for methamphetamine has led to a growth in production. In the Czech Republic home meth labs are sprouting up everywhere. From 19 labs busted in 2000, the number has grown to 416 in a country with just 10.2 million people. In Europe, heroin and cocaine are more available and abused than meth, but demand is the governing force.

Better treatment success rates, new medications to reduce craving, and prevention programs that keep adolescents from beginning use don't make for flashy headlines, but they are successful and can be done at a fraction of the price of supply reduction.

William E. Cohen November 26, 2007


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