Tougher laws aren’t the answer, DPA maintains

The burgeoning popularity of methamphetamine has prompted calls for tougher laws and longer sentences for offenders. But many critics question the wisdom of looking to law enforcement to squelch meth abuse.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading national organization promoting drug-law reform and alternatives to the drug war, said such calls are “an unfortunate knee-jerk response to any new drug problem.”

“You see the same thing going back with Ecstasy five years ago and with crack cocaine in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and with heroin in the ’60s and ’70s, and with marijuana in the ’20s and alcohol in the teens,” Nadelmann said by phone from Washington, D.C. “People get on a high horse about this, the politicians say ‘new penalties!’, no one wants to be seen as soft on drugs, and they pass these things.”

He said there is no need for stiffer laws or sentence enhancements. “There are already very tough laws involving violations of controlled-substances laws that cover meth, and laws involving child endangerment” for parents who neglect their children because of drug abuse.

Nadelmann also advised moving cautiously about another idea for combating meth — severely restricting access to over-the-counter drugs containing pseudoephedrine, a decongestant used illegaly to make meth.

Oklahoma requires people to show an ID and sign if they want cold drugs containing pseudoephedrine. Also, such remedies are no longer available in grocery or convenience stores, but must be bought from pharmacists.

Meth-lab seizures have dropped dramatically in Oklahoma. Now other states are considering adopting such laws.

Nadelmann said it may be a good idea, but it needs a careful look.

“Oklahoma is claiming great success, but people probably just shifted over the border,” he said. If such laws were adopted nationwide, it’s possible meth would be smuggled in from Mexico, leading to more drug violence.

“The market, the producers, the distributors are going to respond and react,” Nadelmann said. “There’s an interactive dynamic with powerful forces of supply and demand at work.”

Nadelmann is encouraged by the fact that more people now seem to regard drug treatment as better than prison for substance abuse.

“If you ask people if they prefer treatment to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, overwhelmingly, two-thirds of the American public say yes. I don’t think that was true in the late ’80s.”

But he said that might be because meth abusers are primarily Caucasian, whereas crack cocaine was seen as a predominantly black problem. However, he said some of his staff members disagree, saying that there’s still a prejudice against meth users.

“They say it’s hillbilly racism, racism against ‘white trash’ – it’s not about race, but class and culture. Drug scares almost always involve people who are poor and disenfranchised.”

Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted, effective treatment for methamphetamine. “There’s nothing for the stimulants – nothing like methadone for heroin or nicotine patches for cigarettes,” Nadelmann said.

“If you ask 10 people, you will get 10 different answers – residential, 12- step, prison, encounter groups, finding God, getting a good job, learning how to handle yourself responsibly, just quitting.”

He said some research outside the U.S. has suggested prescribing low-dose oral amphetamines for people who became addicted by smoking or injecting the drug. “Unfortunately, that’s not even part of the discussion in America,” he said. Anyway, he said, most substance abusers who quit do so not because of treatment, but because they “hit a point in life where enough is enough.”

“What drug treatment should mean is helping people get their lives together, whether or not they’re still using the drug.” Nadelmann said. “Drug abuse is not about using a drug per se, it’s when your use of the drug starts to become problematic in your life and cause harm to people around you.”

One interesting side issue involves children with Attention Deficit Disorder who have been prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin.

“There initially was a hypothesis that people taking these drugs as kids would graduate to cocaine or meth when older,” Nadelmann said. However, studies found that kids who were properly prescribed stimulants for ADD were less likely to abuse illegal drugs, because the craving was absent.

“If you’re wired in such a way that stimulants calm you down and help you focus – more than (they would) the average person. . . if you haven’t been properly prescribed, when you finally encounter this substance, perhaps illegally, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is amazing!’

“If you don’t know how to use it in a controlled fashion. . . you’re going to really hurt yourself.”

He said that raises an interesting question: “Would more sophisticated and proper medication of people beforehand reduce the need and demand and attraction of these drugs?” He added jokingly that maybe “what this country really needs is a good, effective, relatively safe stimulant. . . something like coffee but a little better.” Coca-Cola, he noted, contained low doses of cocaine in its early days.

But Nadelmann said methamphetamine is a serious problem and he is surprised how long-lasting its popularity has been, especially considering how hard stimulants are on the body.

“With heroin you can stabilize your life, you can be on it for 50 years and it’s not going to kill you, but with stimulants like crack cocaine or meth, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “Usually epidemics come in and out of fashion. People get tired of the old substance, they see the negative side effects associated with it, it loses its cool.

“I don’t have a good answer to why meth has hung around so long.”

From February 2005.