May 1st 2008 | TACOMA, WASHINGTON
From The Economist print edition
Success in the war against methamphetamines—at a certain price
A FEW years ago Pierce county, in Washington state, was in the grip of a methamphetamine epidemic. Toothless addicts roamed quiet rural roads, stealing everything that was not nailed down, as well as a few things (such as a garage) that were. The child of a meth cook fell into a bucket of chemicals and was severely burned. Barb Dolan, who set up a neighbourhood watch group, points out a cul-de-sac near her bungalow where a sheriff's deputy walked into a methamphetamine laboratory and was met with gunfire. “It was behind every bush,” she says.
No longer. The drug is disappearing. In 2001 no fewer than 589 methamphetamine labs and dump sites were discovered in Pierce county. Last year just 76 were. Washington's police stopped 39% fewer meth-addled drivers in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Fewer addicts are turning up in local hospitals. This is not just a local trend: across America, workplace drug tests suggest methamphetamine use has been falling since 2005.
It is a rare success in the war on drugs, and an oddly unheralded one. Particularly in the West, televisions flicker with alarming documentaries such as “Montana Meth” and “Crystal Darkness”, which chronicle addiction and rising crime in rural districts. Almost 95% of Western police forces polled last year by the National Drug Intelligence Centre cited methamphetamine as the most serious drug problem in their area. It will not be so for long.
The methamphetamine story in Pierce county has two acts. The first, which began in the late 1990s and ended last year, was largely domestic. Local people made the drug by cooking anhydrous ammonia, decongestant tablets and other ingredients, using what is known as the “Nazi method”. They sold it, mostly to other rural whites, for up to $70 a gram. Gradually, tighter restrictions on cold medicines shut down this trade. At which point, as Paul Pastor, the county sheriff, puts it, methamphetamine ceased to be a cottage industry and became a professional business.
In act two, nearly all meth is made in large Mexican labs and smuggled up Interstate 5, which runs through Pierce county. The imported product is crystalline, purer than the local powder, and more expensive: between $100 and $120 a gram, according to Dave Dewey, a local drug cop. For a while it seemed as though crystal meth would simply take the place of powder meth, and use of the drug would hold steady. That has not happened, partly because Mexico, too, has begun to restrict sales of decongestant, and partly because demand has dropped.
The decline is especially clear among teenagers, who lead drug trends. According to the University of Michigan, which conducts a large survey, the proportion of 18-year-olds who report using methamphetamine in the past year has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1999 (see chart). Their use of crystal meth, or “ice”, has halved since peaking in 2002. The reason is education, say those who work with school pupils—and they seem to be right.
The history of drug education programmes in America is largely dismal. Prodded by the federal government, teachers stress the dangers of marijuana, which are occasionally (and implausibly) compared to those of cocaine and heroin. Teenagers are told that crack cocaine is highly addictive, which sounds to some like a challenge. When it comes to methamphetamine, though, out come pictures of “meth mouth”—the rotten teeth caused by heavy use. This message gets teenagers. When Safe Streets, a community group, asked pupils to design their own anti-drug posters, many emphasised cosmetic hazards over chemical ones.
According to the Michigan study, the share of 18-year-olds who believe that using crystal meth even once or twice carries a great risk has risen every year since 2003. Unfortunately, perceptions of crack cocaine appear to be moving in the opposite direction. The proportion of 17-18-year-olds who believe regular crack use is very risky has fallen from almost 90% in the early 1990s to just under 83%. Powder cocaine meets with about as much disapproval as steroids. It is as though teenagers have a fixed quota of worry, which merely moves from drug to drug.
The same drug-trafficking outfits that now supply crystal meth to the north-west can easily accommodate this shift in consumer demand. Mr Dewey is seeing more crack cocaine around Tacoma. Rob Bovett, who helped write Oregon's methamphetamine laws, points to a rise in cocaine, heroin and Oxycontin, a painkiller that can be abused. Cocaine is on the rise in Utah. Because cocaine and heroin are derived from plants, they will prove harder to stamp out. Sudden drops in production, of the kind that drove meth purities down in 2006 and again in 2007, are unlikely to occur.
This does not mean the campaign against meth has been pointless. Far from it. The shift from a cottage industry to a well-run international business was good, because it meant amateur meth cooks were no longer setting fire to their children. Moving people onto other, slightly less harmful drugs is no bad thing, either. So grim was the methamphetamine experience in Pierce county that some view the rise of crack cocaine with relief.