Bush Drug Policy Addresses Methamphetamines

The Bush administration has released a new set of initiatives to combat methamphetamine use in the country. Robert Siegel talks with Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and co-director of the RAND drug policy research center, about the new plan, and about the priorities and effectiveness of U.S. drug policy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

So far in our program we've heard about the growing problem of methamphetamine abuse and efforts to curb it and also how heroin is still a problem in one New Mexico community; that despite some high-profile raids by law enforcement. Now for some analysis of the overall fight against illegal drugs, we're joined by Peter Reuter, who's professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, also a co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

Welcome to the program...

Professor PETER REUTER (Public Policy, University of Maryland, Co-Director, RAND Drug Policy Research Center): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: ...Professor Reuter. And, first, on the question of methamphetamine abuse, there is some dispute on the op-ed pages as to what degree there is a methamphetamine epidemic in the United States and to what extent there's an overstated panic. How do you describe the methamphetamine problem today in the US?

Prof. REUTER: There are some parts of the country in which methamphetamine is clearly the most dangerous drug sort of widely used. If you go to Los Angeles, it's methamphetamine that is showing up amongst people that are sort of just arrested on the street, much less cocaine and so on. There are other parts of the country in which it's almost unknown. And the question sort of is: Will the map fill in, so to speak? It is a seriously dangerous drug. It really has very adverse effects, both acute effects and long-term effects. This is not marijuana. This is cocaine, maybe cocaine-plus--in fact, almost certainly cocaine-plus.

SIEGEL: Unlike cocaine, though, a methamphetamine user can cook it up, can make it at home.

Prof. REUTER: Well, it's made by lots of people who are more like retailers. I mean, a user could produce it at home, but typically it's made by lots of, you know, small producers using chemicals that they can find easily and cough medicines that they get at the pharmacy.

SIEGEL: Which brings us to a key point in the federal government's new initiative and that is stricter limits on cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine.

Prof. REUTER: Right.

SIEGEL: Can this work? Could it work more effectively?

Prof. REUTER: There certainly are things that the federal government could do that seem more important than just sort of ratcheting up the existing regulations a bit. There are really two things. One is that pseudoephedrine is used from the manufacture of cold medicines. Well, you could use a very similar chemical that would not permit the manufacture of methamphetamine. And that's been around for some years. There's not been pressure on the chemical companies to move to this. And one issue is why the federal government doesn't push them further to make this available and basically move pseudoephedrine, the basic chemical for methamphetamine, out of the pharmacies. The second point is that Mexico is importing huge quantities of pseudoephedrine, which is obviously coming across the border here. So in some ways we're focusing...

SIEGEL: You're saying in excess of what the common cold would require in Mexico.

Prof. REUTER: Right. One estimate is that the Mexicans import about 200 tons of pseudoephedrine, and they only need about 100 tons. And the system that they have in place, while it looks like serious regulation, it's very leaky regulation.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about what we heard from John Burnett a moment ago about that town near Chimayo in New Mexico. It's not very encouraging about what decades of the war on drugs can result in, even though there have been some improvements. I could come away from that fairly pessimistic about any sort of federal action.

Prof. REUTER: It's not just federal action. I mean, this is--I mean, drug policy is as much a state and local matter as it is a federal one. And the simple observation is that over the last 30 years, we have seen a fairly stagnant heroin problem; that is the number of heroin users now is probably down about 20, 25 percent from what it was at its peak in the early '80s. But it's a very slow decline. There are new users who are sort of replacing the ones that die. Very few of them give up; that is, this is almost a lifetime addiction. And no one has any very clever solutions as to how that might be accelerated. But pessimism is a very sensible attitude here.

SIEGEL: A justified approach you say. The kind of drug court we heard the administration tout today where people would be put into treatment more commonly. Amphetamine treatment, is it typically successful?

Prof. REUTER: Most treatment--I mean, treatment is effective in the sense that people who are going to treatment use a lot less of the drugs over their lifetime, but most of them relapse into treatment. It's not a permanent cure. It's effective, it's cost effective, but it still leaves us with a big problem whether it's methamphetamine or heroin.

SIEGEL: Professor Reuter, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Prof. REUTER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Peter Reuter is professor at the University of Maryland, public policy, and also co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

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