Shockingly, Anti-Meth Laws Have Had Unintended Consequences

Monday, January 10th, 2011

An A.P. investigation into the fallout from those meth fighting laws that restrict the sale of cold medication has turned up results that “surprised” law makers and law enforcement officials:

But an Associated Press analysis of federal data reveals that the practice has not only failed to curb the meth trade, which is growing again after a brief decline. It also created a vast and highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup.

In just a few years, the lure of such easy money has drawn thousands of new people into the methamphetamine underworld.

“It’s almost like a sub-criminal culture,” said Gary Boggs, an agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration. “You’ll see them with a GPS unit set up in a van with a list of every single pharmacy or retail outlet. They’ll spend the entire week going store to store and buy to the limit.”

Inside their vehicles, the so-called “pill brokers” punch out blister packs into a bucket and even clip coupons, Boggs said.

In some cases, the pill buyers are not interested in meth. They may be homeless people recruited off the street or even college kids seeking weekend beer money, authorities say.

But because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, they can buy a box of pills for $7 to $8 and sell it for $40 or $50.

The tracking systems “invite more people into the criminal activity because the black market price of the product becomes so much more profitable,” said Jason Grellner, a detective in hard-hit Franklin County, Mo., about 40 miles west of St. Louis.

“Where else can you make a 750 percent profit in 45 minutes?” asked Grellner, former president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.

Since tracking laws were enacted beginning in 2006, the number of meth busts nationwide has started climbing again. Some experts say the black market for cold pills contributed to that spike. Other factors are at play, too, such as meth trafficking by Mexican cartels and new methods for making small amounts of meth.

The AP reviewed DEA data spanning nearly a decade, from 2000 to 2009, and conducted interviews with a wide array of police and government officials.

Meth use was also up 34 percent in 2009. So the new laws are inconveniencing law-abiding people who want to treat cold and allergy symptoms, have had either zero or a positive effect on meth use, have lured new people into the meth trade, and have created a bigger market for smuggling meth and meth ingredients into the country from Mexico.

But perhaps we should go easy on the politicians who passed these laws. I mean, it’s not like anyone could possibly have predicted any of this.

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44 Responses to “Shockingly, Anti-Meth Laws Have Had Unintended Consequences”

  1. #1 |  CyniCAl | 

    Put a link to this on another thread a couple of hours ago. Brilliant minds and all…. ;-)

  2. #2 |  SJE | 

    Now we need a war on GPS units and vans.

  3. #3 |  derfel cadarn | 

    Prohibition didn`t stop drinking does it surprise anyone that the war on drugs hasn`t stopped their use?

  4. #4 |  CyniCAl | 

    The whole famdamily has been down with a cold since the new year, so I had the wonderful experience of going sudafed shopping. Went to Stater Bros. first and they don’t even carry it anymore. Must hurt their bottom line to some extent. Went to Albertson’s and they have it at the pharmacy, had to give my DL — so nice to have it on record. Just like buying alcohol at my local Target, which scans DLs now for alcohol purchases. So I buy my liquor elsewhere now. Now I’m looking for a time machine (used preferably) back to the early 80s, it was so much cooler back then.

    FWIW, I don’t think the politicians give much of a shit what consequences their laws have, though I suspect if a few more get capped, which I wholly abhor as an anarchist (non-violent subspecies), they might have to grow brains out of necessity. But then again, you never know. Those politicians are an obstinate bunch. Interesting times indeed.

  5. #5 |  auggie | 

    Are pill brokers breaking the law? I guess when they sell them they are. Can the cops arrest somone for running around buying them?

  6. #6 |  claude | 

    They have other consequences too. I have allergies and could use those pills once in a while but i wont buy them cuz im not signing any damn list. :-|

  7. #7 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    How I long for the slow, easy nights of “real” NyQuil. At least I have my FourLoco.

    But let’s look at the INTENDED consequences:

    1. Many, many politicians re-elected.
    2. Billions in budgets allocated to drug war…business is good.
    3. Paranoia of public still at level where they’ll agree to anything.
    4. First plan didn’t work, so next plan can be even bigger$$.

    Remember, win or lose government wins.

  8. #8 |  Len | 

    There are no unintended consequences of regulation.

  9. #9 |  André | 

    I wish I’d had contacts that would have let me resell pills that are legal to possess when I was in college. I would have been able to afford real food and wouldn’t have had to drive around in my beaten-up ’93 Ddong Cha.

  10. #10 |  Tom | 

    That’s good to know. I’ve been looking for extra money. If I buy a box or two for 20 total, and turn it around into $120, awesome for me!

  11. #11 |  Bob | 

    #5 auggie

    Are pill brokers breaking the law? I guess when they sell them they are. Can the cops arrest somone for running around buying them?

    Not yet.

    Wait until the effectiveness of limiting sales or pseudoephedrine wears out (Oh, it already has) and the “Anyone but us!” crowd clamors for more legislation to get these “Dirty Meth Dealers away from our kids” and it will be.

    The result will be to make it a crime to redistribute pseudoephedrine, complete with minimum sentencing requirements.

    The Police response will be to focus efforts on these ‘smurphers’ (What a stupid name, the popular pills must be blue) and then bitch and moan that they need more resources, all the while doing no more to actually reduce Meth use.

  12. #12 |  Bob | 

    Boyd Durkin:

    I tried FourLoco just because of the controversy, they still had the cans with caffeine at my local convenience store.

    Oh my god, that shit is VILE. It’s like a combination of soda, moonshine, and battery acid.

  13. #13 |  Andrew S. | 

    How did I know there would be someone associated with law enforcement saying the following in the article:

    Advocates of tracking say the rise in meth incidents indicates success, not failure.
    “One reason these numbers have gone up is because of law enforcement’s ability to track and locate the people producing meth,” said Keith Cain, sheriff in Daviess County, Ky. “If we pull the plug on electronic tracking, we lose the ability to see where these labs are at. I fear we would regress 10 years.”

  14. #14 |  Dante | 

    So, our elected “leaders” changed the law so that meth use would be reduced. They also wanted to reduce the numbers of people in the meth trade and to reduce the overall market in meth. Our leaders also claim that they seek to help Mexico extract itself from the drug war.

    And how did that all work out?

    “Meth use was also up 34 percent in 2009. So the new laws are inconveniencing law-abiding people who want to treat cold and allergy symptoms, have had either zero or a positive effect on meth use, have lured new people into the meth trade, and have created a bigger market for smuggling meth and meth ingredients into the country from Mexico.”

    Never in the history of man have so many been so harmed by the acts of so few (our Congress).

  15. #15 |  Mike Leatherwood | 


  16. #16 |  Mattocracy | 

    Prohibition makes criminals richer!? If only we had some kind of immediate national history to reflect on so that might learn from our past mistakes.

  17. #17 |  Big A | 

    #13 Andrew- so when the numbers do eventually go down (say people get sick of doing meth OSLT), does that mean we can yank the funding then??? Ha ha.

  18. #18 |  Big A | 

    #16 Mattocracy- no kidding. Why do we bother learning history at all? We can’t even look back a few years or at other countries with exactly the same thing going on and guess what the outcome will be.

  19. #19 |  Marty | 

    I wish I was one of the clever guys who always seem to figure out a way to profit from govt bullshit… I’d build a dynasty to rival the Kennedys!

  20. #20 |  MassHole | 

    I had a conversation the other day with a good friend. He was of the mind that heroin, crack, etc. should be illegal because junkies and crackheads commit crimes, etc. I explained that taking, selling, and buying these drugs are all actions and decisions made by willing participants. Who cares if someone gets high. It is not until they commit theft, assault, etc. that someone has been victimized. Only then should the state have any interest in the matter. I saw the light bulb go on over his head! He used the example that if someone like Paris Hilton was a junkie, with a limitless supply of cash in order to fund a habit, she would only be breaking the law by possessing or purchasing. Thus, being guilty of only a victimless / political crime. He gets it now. If anything, at least the senseless death of Mr. Stamps in Framingham, MA is leading to these type of discussions.

  21. #21 |  HaciendaMike | 

    Hey, Pete. Would you mind citing your source for the 34% increase? I could use that in a press conference on Wednesday, but I want to have a verifiable source. Thanks!

  22. #22 |  HaciendaMike | 

    Oops, I meant, Hey Radley.

  23. #23 |  J.S. | 

    I shocked! Perhaps Oregon will decide to drop its doc prescription requirement for sudafed etc.. Nah.

  24. #24 |  JThompson | 

    @Bob: And in the meantime we’ll all be sitting here horrified as we watch a video of cops smashing in a door and dragging a mother out kicking and screaming because she gave her sick kid a Sudafed.

    Zero Tolerance and Won’t Someone Think of the Children and all that.

  25. #25 |  Tweets that mention Shockingly, Anti-Meth Laws Have Had Unintended Consequences | The Agitator -- | 

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christopher Monnier and s w, Market Mentat. Market Mentat said: Anti-Meth Laws: citizens can't get flu meds, but meth use rises 39%. Govt #Fail Answer: need more $$ (surprise!) […]

  26. #26 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    As I have, I believe, mentioned elsewhere in comments on this Blog, I am a sinus problem sufferer for whom the most effective and problem free medication has always been Sudafed. The politicians who are responsible for this rash of laws should be struck briskly in the sinuses with a nine-iron, to give them some idea of what they are asking people to endure so that they can look ‘tough on drug crime’.

  27. #27 |  Spiny Norman | 

    I simply don’t buy the claim that “meth use was also up 34 percent in 2009.” Drug use statistics are notoriously unreliable and subject to political influence.

  28. #28 |  Brendan | 

    Worse still is that the crap they put in the replacement Sudafed PE ;Phenylephrine HCl just doesn’t work. Even the pharmacists admit it if pushed.

  29. #29 |  Mannie | 

    #5 | auggie | January 10th, 2011 at 2:54 pm
    > Are pill brokers breaking the law? I guess when they sell them they are.
    > Can the cops arrest somone for running around buying them?

    I guess it depends on the state. I remember a case from last year. A grandmother was convicted of drug dealing because she bought a couple too many boxes of Dope, er, Sudafed from a couple of different pharmacies. Her kids and grandkids had a cold plague. I don’t think she got jail time, but she had to do probation, and is now a convicted felon.

  30. #30 |  Joe | 

    Maybe I am reading this wrong, but it seems to me that while 2009 was an increase from 2007 and 2008, the number of meth incidents is still much lower than the pre-law days. I’t really doesn’t make sense to say that laws have a positive or zero effect without considering the overall downward trend from 2004.

    From the AP article….

    “Initially, the practice yielded swift results. Meth incidents dropped by nearly two-thirds — from 18,581 in 2004 to 6,233 in 2007.

    Oklahoma, which adopted an electronic tracking system in 2006, was heralded as a success story after meth incidents dropped from 699 in 2004 to 93 in 2007.

    But then meth producers regrouped, largely through more smurfing. And meth-related incidents began climbing again. By 2009, the DEA cited 10,064 meth incidents, a 62 percent rise over the previous two years.”

  31. #31 |  Retrofit | 

    Yet we can prescribe amphetamines to children and adults so they can pay attention in school and at work. Being jacked up on drugs is OK as long as the money goes to Big Pharma.

  32. #32 |  Madeline Wolf | 

    “A grandmother was convicted of drug dealing… and is now a convicted felon”

    Is there a source on that?

  33. #33 |  War on Sudafed fails | An Onymous Lefty | 

    […] your ability to buy medicines that, as critics predicted they would, actually work in order to make the trade more profitable for drug dealers? But an Associated Press analysis of federal data reveals that the practice has not only failed to […]

  34. #34 |  shipwreckedcrew | 


    Radley — you think you discover the wheel everytime you put out stuff like this.

    DEA and various state agencies — notably led by BNE in California — were prosecuting pseudoephedrine traffickers back in the mid and late 1990s. Long before smurfing of small quantitites became the norm. It was because of successes against large scale distributors — and changes in the control laws regarding pseudoephedring — that smurfing became the only way to get pseudo. Its an act of desparation by a manufacturing industry under assault – not a sign of success by the drug traffikers.

    You want to return to the days where they were busting traffickers — largely from various Middle Eastern countries like Yemen and Syria — who were moving dozens of “cases” of pseudoephedrin at a time? A case was 144 bottles — a dozen dozen — of 120 tablets each. Each tablet was single-entity pseudoephedrine, 60 miligrams under a generic label that had NO medicinal value. Legitimate cold medicines are double or trip entity — combined with guifenasin (expectorant) or acetometaphin (fever reducer) for other cold symtoms.

    Let me do the math for you:

    In a perfectly controlled laboratory, pseudoephedrine converts to methamphetamine at 92% of its molecular wieght — meaning 1 gram of pseudo can be converted to 920 milligrams of meth. This is because the change of the molecule involves removing a single atom from from the structure of pseudoephedrine, turning it into methamphetamine — the chemical process is that simple. The loss of that atom represents the difference in the molecular weight.

    60 milligrams of pseudo per tablet multiplied by 120 tablets in a bottle — that gives you 7.2 grams per bottle. 144 bottles per case multiplied by 7.2 grams per bottle, means there was 1036.8 grams of pseudo per case.

    Multiply that by 92%, means that there was theoretically 953 grams of 100% pure meth per case of pseudoephedrine tablets. That would be a little less than 1/2 pound.

    Factoring in you basic meth lab inefficiencies, it generally took 3 cases of pseudo tablets to produce about 1 pound of 90% pure meth.

    The case of tablets — and this is in 1998 — went for about $1200. A large lab making multiple pounds of meth at a time would take that 1 pound of pure meth, mix it with 4 pounds of cut material, and suddenly have 5 pounds of 20% pure meth — which was pretty much street-level dope in the late 1990s.

    Each pound of 20% pure meth had a per pound price of around $5000. So — you invest $3600 in pseudo tablets, about $1000 in other chemicals and equipment needed — and at the other end you get $25,000 worth of street level meth.

    There were cases done in the 1990s that involved dozens and dozens of cases of tablets at a time — 50, 100 cases at a time. There were even sezires of semi-truck trailers with large loads of pseudo mixed in with other boxes of goods.

    Just to show you how late you are to the party, and the background you missed here:

  35. #35 |  shipwreckedcrew | 

    I got my math wrong in there — 2.2 pounds equals a kilogram, not the other way around. So, if you get 953 grams of meth per case of pseudo tablets, then you are getting close to 2 pounds of meth per case of tablets once you mix in the inefficiencies. So, you mix that 2 pounds of meth with 8 pounds of cut, and you’ve got 10 pounds of street level dope at $5000 per pound — $40,000 — for your investment in $1200 worth of pseudo.

    Until the late 1990s, a person could receive up to one kilogram of pseudoephedrine per 30 days without needing a DEA certificate since pseudoephedrine is a “listed chemical.” Traffickers in New York and Chicago would enlist dozens of small Mom&Pop markets to take delivery of a single case each month, pay them $50 or $100 for doing so, and then go around and collect all the cases — thereby staying under the DEA radar.

    And yes, these were largely Middle Eastern traffickers using merchants in the Middle Eastern communities in their cities.

  36. #36 |  auggie | 

    shipwreckedcrew = Walter White (Breaking Bad)

  37. #37 |  Griff | 

    @ shipwreckedcrew

    You state that:

    “Each tablet was single-entity pseudoephedrine, 60 miligrams under a generic label that had NO medicinal value.”

    Uh, ok?

    I buy single entity sinus medication all the time. I don’t have a cough, and Acetaminophen doesn’t do jack squat for me, so I don’t take it. Pseudoephedrine by itself is often enough to knock out the sinus headaches I get, if anything further is needed an aspirin or two does the job. A single entity medication is perfectly fine when you are treating a single symptom.

    I’m guessing you don’t have any headaches related to sinus issues, or you simply swallow multiple medications when you do. Whatever your situation, don’t pull things out of the air and present them as facts.

  38. #38 |  Cyto | 

    #35 | shipwreckedcrew |

    I think you miss the point. The idea isn’t that there is some new development with regard to materials supply. It is that there has been a continual effort to cut off the supply of meth by attacking pharmacies and cold medicine. Each ratcheting up of pressure on the availability of pseudoephedrine has resulted in more involvement of organized crime, not less. Eventually resulting in cheaper supplies and more violent suppliers. The original “epidemic” involved small local labs cooking drugs using supplies from the local store. Enforcement efforts have largely driven that production to Mexico where large gangs control many millions of dollars of trade in illegal drugs.

    The supply side problem with the original epidemic was drug labs blowing up or catching fire, not 50,000 murdered people who got caught up in a turf war. Making meth “more illegal” by trying to control pseudoephedrine resulted in pretty much exactly the opposite of the stated goal, and also made it so that I can’t get cold medicine that works at Wal-Mart on the way home late at night, because the pharmacist isn’t there.

    No, it isn’t new – these adaptations to prohibition and corollary restrictions have been progressing apace since the first criminalization of meth. Or any other drug for that matter. The stunning (but depressingly common) thing is that the drug warriors continue to double-down, with each failure of prohibition only confirming that we need to do more.

  39. #39 |  Cyto | 

    Oh, also in the late 90’s meth labs in northern Mexico began ordering pseudoephedrine in 55 gallon drums from China, reducing material costs to effectively zero. It resulted in a large increase in supply and resultant drop in street price. Since this was a largely midwestern/northwestern epidemic at the time, these areas saw the biggest drop in prices and rise of supply.

  40. #40 |  Woppadingo | 

    In Australia, the pharmacies prevent the buyers from going on ‘milk runs’ as they call it, by having their own national tracking system. The DL is checked and recorded by the pharmacy each time someone buys pseudoephidrine. So if they go to another pharmacy, the DL (or Medicare card?) gets checked and the pharmacist can tell if they’ve bought it elsewhere recently. its not a government run thing at all.
    I don’t know if this is the same in the USA, but I cant help but think there is something missing in the way they do it.

  41. #41 |  Appy | 

    I guess it’s easier to point fingers at those trying to help with the meth problem, rather than at the pharmaceutical industry, who made millions off meth manufacturing. CVS just settled for $75 million when its own sales figured showed that about 80% of its pseudo sales weren’t legit.

    Restricting pseudo was always foremost about stopping labs in the U.S., and it has done so with great success. I don’t know what a “meth incident” that the AP story talks about is, but labs have virtually disappeared in Oregon, and their associated hazards with them. For a background:

  42. #42 |  shipwreckedcrew | 

    Cyto — why didn’t Mexican national cartels manufacture meth in large qantities in Mexico in the 1990s, and why are they doing it now?

    They didn’t do it in the 1990s because they didn’t enjoy things like the 4th Amendment, and they had to pay huge bribes to keep the Army and federales from taking their stuff. It was cheaper to absorb the law enforcement hits that happened in the US — so long as they were able to manufacture in large quantities in the US. Most of that happened in Calif.

    The source for their pseudo were the single-entity tablets bottled under generic labels made predominantly in New Jersey, using pseudo powder brought in legally from the Czech Republic. Aggressive law enforcement efforts beginning in the mid-1990s began to focus on the chemical trade — both the listed chemical (pseudo) and the non-listed industrial chemicals used in the manufacture of HI (red phos and iodine) and methamphetamine (caustic soda, freon and Hcl gas).

    Depriving the large scale Mexican cartel lab operators of these chemicals in large supplies — first from domestic sources and later from Canada where pseudo is unrestricted), drove the large scale meth manufacturers into Mexico where they could find those chemicals. The didn’t go because they wanted to — they could have been there all through the 1990s but they weren’t.

    In addition, meth seized coming out of Calif “super labs” was routinely 90-95% pure. But, because of law enforcement efforts aimed at the chemical trade, by 2000, the meth coming out of the labs was 20% pure. This is because less pseudo was available, meaning less actual meth could be made in a 48 hour cook cycle at a super lab, causing the manufacturers to turn to “cut” in order to boost their output while driving down the purity.

    All of that was huge law enforcement successes.

    Now, the smurfing happened after the requirement of blister packs was introduced, and there was a limitation imposed on the number of packs you could buy. Electronic tracking has simply became a tracking device to locate people who are smurfing. What is wrong with that?

    It was thought that the trouble of having to pop the tablets out of the pack one at a time, with a limit of 32 tablets per pack, would discourage the smurfers. This was opposed to simply opening the top of a bottle and pouring the tablets into a blender or other grinding device. Before these restrictions were put into place, you could buy 500 and 1000 tablet bottles of single-entity pseudo from Coscto and Sams Club.

    But they haven’t been discouraged. And, I have no sympathy for people who decide to enter into this illegal activity because there’s a good profit margin in it. Well, there’s a good profit margin in crack cocaine too. Its not hard to make. Buy yourself a couple ounces, rock it up, and sell $20 pieces on the street corner. You only work a couple hours a day, make $400-500, and then the rest of the day is your’s.

    You might get arrested, you might get shot. But the profit is good while it lasts.

    Same for smurfing.

  43. #43 |  shipwreckedcrew | 

    Cyto — also, the 55 gallon drums (actually, I think you are referring to 55 lb “tins”) was nothing new. Those predated the bottled tablets, before pseudo was made a listed chemical and its importation was subject to DEA licensing requirements. Once the DEA licensing requirements for bulk pseudo kicked in, you had to demonstrate a pharmecuetical use for what you imported and it was tracked all through shipping.

    The Czech Republic and Romania were big sources, with China starting to manufacture and export pseudo in the late 1990s.

  44. #44 |  For symptoms of the cold « Bbbbblllllbbblblodschbg | 

    […] When I’m congested, I want my pseudephedrine, dammit—nothing else seems to work as well for me. But “Shockingly, Anti-Meth Laws Have Had Unintended Consequences”. […]