Sneezing at the Drug Laws
I’m a retired law professor, one of that privileged class of moderately successful elderly white males. So why is the DEA picking on me? It’s because I – and millions of others like me – have a runny nose. Allergic rhinitis plagues may life and I need regular doses of decongestants to function well. These, primarily norepinepherine and pseudoephedrine, are over-the-counter drugs with more than a half century of safe, effective, reliable use. But the DEA makes it as hard as it can to make it difficult for us to obtain.
The drugs must be kept behind the counter in a registered pharmacy and purchasers must provide an ID and sign a register. Quantities are limited to one package per month. In my case, I can purchase a pack of forty-eight capsules every thirty days. I take two pills a day. Do the math. Forty-eight pills will last twenty-four days, so every three or four months I must get a friend to conspire with me to break the law by making a straw purchase.
I’m better off than many people. I live in Houston, with many twenty-four hour pharmacies; but many people live in small towns with just one or two pharmacies in the town and those close early. Many others live in small towns without a drugstore at all. Of course, those people can go into the town’s convenience store or gas station and by unlimited quantities of aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. All of these drugs are more dangerous than the decongestants, each of them killing several hundred users a year.
Why is the DEA so hard on the users of these beneficial, harmless drugs? These drugs can be used as precursor chemicals by a few people who use them to make small illegal batches of a legal drug. That’s right: methamphetamine is a Schedule II drug that any doctor may prescribe and each months thousands of doses of it (under the trade name Desoxyn) are prescribed for children with Attention Spectrum Disorders. It has been a legal drug since the 1930s and in the 50s and 60s was one of the most widely used prescription drugs.
The irony is that even if the DEA could be successful in keeping decongestants out of the hands of meth cookers (which is impossible), the effect on the availability of illegal methamphetamine would be minimal at best. By far the largest share of illegal meth is smuggled (i. e., imported) from Mexico, where factories import their precursors from Asia. (This share is probably 70 – 80% of the total, but one problem of forcing a market into illegality is that normal statistics are not available.) The next largest fraction (probably over 10%) comes from diversions from the legal Desoxyn market. The percentage attributable to illegal cookers is only in the single digits. Millions of allergy sufferers are hampered in getting their medicine in a vain effort to deter a few hundred criminals.
Why am I obsessing on something that, I have to admit, is only a minor hassle in my life. If I want to discuss the collateral damage from the War on Drugs, I could discuss many issues with more serious consequences. Medical marijuana, which hundreds of thousands need to cope with deadly or debilitating conditions. Eighty-three year old grandmothers brutally gunned down when police burst through her door executing a no-knock warrant on the wrong apartment. Kids watching their pet dogs shot down by a SWAT team smashing into their house. Children struggling to grow up while their mother sits in federal prison on a twenty-year drug sentence. Drug users dying from contaminated black market drugs. Young men denied education and hope of a career because of a drug conviction. Inner-city babies sleeping in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets from street drug markets.
The utter banality of waiting in line at the pharmacy makes it ideal for studying the costs of the War on Drugs. The individual cost of each episode is small enough to go unnoticed, but it quietly spreads to affect millions of innocent civilians. It focuses a spotlight on the way the malignancy of Prohibition has metastasized throughout the entire social structure. It’s clear evidence that the indirect costs of the WoD is paid by everyone.
So, please excuse me while I find a copy of the Controlled Substances Act to blow my nose on.