Demand, not supply, heart of drug problem


Indiana’s current policy debate about methamphetamine restrictions offers a window into the myriad failures of our War on Drugs, and the shallow thinking that accompanies almost all our fixes.

It is probably best to begin with a description of the problem.

Meth addiction is a horrible scourge on our society. Meth addicts are criminals and engage in lawless acts ubiquitous to the workings of an illegal economy; theft, prostitution and a slew of other crimes.

Depending on which study you read, the typical meth user has a lifespan of about half the average American, and most addicts are dead within a decade of first use. This is a bad drug chosen by men and women with little regard for themselves or anyone else.

These people are not victims but victimizers of us all; most especially their own families and the public safety folks who risk their health in trying to stop meth production.

All of this would make it seem that meth is such a challenge that it should attract all our resources to fight. It is not. Were meth eliminated today, these users and the generations that follow would find heroin, cocaine, OxyContin, PCP or whatever new designer drug is available to the same end.

The problem with drugs is not supply, but demand. As long as there is demand, supply will find a way to meet it. Yet most of our policies and almost all our funding goes towards targeting the supply of drugs.

Now in Indiana, we are on the cusp of yet another major effort to restrict the supply of meth, by making one of the many ingredients a prescription-only medication. This is high folly of course, but for the record I am indifferent.

Like most legislators and law enforcement folks I have decent health insurance. So to me the cost and inconvenience of having to visit the doctor for what are over-the-counter medications in 48 other states is minimal. In the end, this law will only cost the Indiana economy a bit more than $60 million per year, with the biggest cost to the working poor.

The real problem with making some cold medications ‘prescription only’ is that this policy won’t have any effect on meth use or meth production or the carnage of drug abuse and addiction. It will be yet another ineffective effort in the war on drugs. But, you may ask, how do I know this?

Well, both Mississippi and Oregon have passed the same laws, and every study conducted on them says the same thing: there was no reduction on meth use or production.

But you don’t need to study this to gauge the silliness. Cocaine, heroin and OxyContin are all prescription drugs, readily obtained from many pharmacies at gunpoint.

To be sure, this law will make it easier to cut back on meth raids, providing a mirage of benefits.

But don’t be misled. However popular this law might be, Indiana’s meth problem won’t be curbed by any supply side restrictions.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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