Oregon's Meth Precursor Experiment

It seemed so logical, restrict precursor chemicals necessary to make methamphetamines and supply of this dangerous drug of abuse would diminish. Oregon apparently went down that road more stringently than most states, but instead of seeing their problems shrink, news reports are telling us that the opposite is true. “There’s so much, it’s ridiculous” is how one cop described the current state of affairs. Apparently, while Oregon has successfully shut down most small-time meth labs, the void is being filled by drug cartels who are flooding the market. Violence may be increasing as well with the shift in suppliers.

From a prevention point of view, this would seem to be a failure. But the question we have to ask is, was this foreseeable? Was there research to guide the original policy shift, and if so, where did it go wrong? Or, indeed could research have predicted the failure.

According to the news accounts, Oregon made its policy changes in 2005, making products containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine a schedule III medication. Thus, in Oregon such common cold and allergy medicines became a prescription only purchase. Restrictions on the quantity any one person could possess were enacted as well. Thus, a major aspect of the law was on the regulation of retail purchase of precursors, which are the source for small-scale meth labs. Given that the sentiment in Oregon was that small-time meth “cooks” were creating the problem, it makes sense that retail purchase was a concern. But what does the research say?

Research is scant
There are few studies reporting the results precursor restrictions on meth use and availability. One contemporaneous study (Cunningham and Liu, 2005) casts some doubts on such restrictions. Their report demonstrated marked reductions immediately following restrictions on bulk precursors was enacted either on the Federal or California State level. However, the authors found that “The regulation targeting precursors typically used by small-scale producers…had little or no effect on arrests” (p.485). Indeed even the effects of bulk sale restrictions that were observed were short-lived, with arrests rebounding within 2 to 3 years following the regulations. Of course, conclusions based upon this study are made problematic because the authors were studying arrests; changes in the laws of insterest may have affected arrest rates independently of actual use rates. So while this study appears to have predicted the Oregon failure, it must be acknowledged that it was not a definitive study. Another study conducted by the same researchers had previously demonstrated reductions in hospital admissions from the bulk precursor regulations (Cunningham and Liu, 2003). But some debate within the literature (e.g., Reuter and Caulkins, 2003) exists whether the supply-side intervention should have had such a dramatic result, given the somewhat modest effects on price and availability.

Environmental Prevention
A major tenet in environmental prevention is that with restrictions of access, abuse will be diminished. Oregon’s experience would appear to contradict that theory. However, it in fact could be argued that yet again the theory is left untested, for policy changes that were intended to limit availability have failed, perhaps predictably. But without the requisite reduction in availability, the environment did not actually alter in a preventive way, and thus use rates would not be expected to decline. A terrible example of what can happen when policy moves ahead of research.

Salvia Paper Publication Date

I'm told that our paper College student use of Salvia divinorum will be published online by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence by about December 20th. Look for it then. The paper version will be out some months later.