The Goals and Means of Meth Control
Yesterday, I came across this link to an absolutely heartbreaking photo series about an HIV-positive drug addict who the photographer found in a shelter, and then followed for 18 years. Like Laura, I shamelessly cried at the images. Then I noticed that the woman in them was ten months younger than I am. By 2004 she looked like an old woman. Her body and her life were ravaged by her infection; she died without reaching her 37th birthday.
Having not looked closely at this case, I'm not sure whether Keith's preference for regulation or Megan's aversion to it provides better policy guidance in this case, though the history of supply control efforts is anything but encouraging.
But Megan makes a common conceptual mistake when she heads her post "The Cost of Meth Prohibition." The cost she's concerned with is the cost of a specific enforcement initiative. If we put Sudafed back on the pharmacy shelf, methamphetamine would still be prohibited. Compared to legal commerce, that alone greatly reduces the availability of the drug. So the case for less vigorous regulatory efforts to enforce prohibition isn't the same as the case against prohibition itself.
In the case of meth, it's not just the drug that's noxious; so is the production process. And it's true that prohibition faces us with a choice between tighter restrictions and more lab activity (assuming that the restrictions would be effective nationally in the long run, as they have been at the state level in the shorter run). So there's a possible argument - though not, in my view, a convincing one - that the costs of increased meth abuse due to legalization would be preferable to the costs of either more lab activity due to loosened restrictions or the losses to patients due to tighter restrictions. (Keith's claim that there would be clandestine production even if the drug were legal seems hard to sustain; meth as a legal drug would cost next to nothing to make.)
But we can't have a sensible debate about the tactics of drug control if every tactical issue gets linked to the prohibition/legalization argument. They're simply not the same thing.
It's an important distinction, I understand, but I do view this criminalization of ancillary behaviors as itself a product of prohibition. I blogged about this in 2003, also in response to something Mark wrote:
Money laundering statutes and their ilk illustrate beautifully one of the major potential costs of ineffective legislation. If you outlaw something that a motivated group of people really, really want to do, you will find that many of them still do it. Many of these people will be very dedicated to keeping you from catching them. Because it is hard to catch them (and because prohibition tends to produce nasty blackmarkets, with the associated crime), legislators will find it convenient to pass more laws making ancillary behaviors illegal. If left unchecked, this process will make so many things illegal that prosecutors can always get you for something. The prosecutorial wisdom that "they got Al Capone for tax evasion" is an extremely dangerous thing. Prosecutors know that they are good people, and criminals are not; it is natural that they should want as much power as possible to pursue them. (Which is why Janet Reno and John Ashcroft seem to be about equally hard on civil liberties.) But prosecutors are not perfectly wise, and it is folly to trust them with so much power.So with meth, we made it illegal, and then it turned out you could make the stuff from cold medicine in a very dangerous and dirty home production process, so we made it hard to get cold medicine, so they switched to an even more dangerous process, so now we're going to make it even harder to get cold medicine . . .