We’re in the midst of whipping through Nick Reding’s Methland, which is a fantastic feat of reporting. It takes an intrepid writer, indeed, to spend such a vast amount of time in small-town Iowa, connecting with tweakers and those who loathe them.
While Methland has earned major plaudits for its human touch, we’ve been more struck by some of the backstory it offers, particularly in regards to policy decisions that accidentally aided the drug lords. Reding delves into the Big Pharma lobbying that kept pseudoephedrine cheap and legal, despite the resistance of a single DEA bureaucrat. And he also notes that pseudoephedrine could easily have been excised from cold medicines several years ago, which would have put the kibosh on the most common means of meth production. A snippet from Reding’s explainer:
Mirror imaging is a process whereby a chemical’s molecular structure is reversed, moving, for example, electrons from the bottom of a certain ring to the top, and vice versa. Pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and methamphetamine are already near mirror images of one another. To make meth from ephedrine, it is necessary to remove a single oxygen atom from the outer electron ring. Thus ephedrine and methamphetamine not only look the same under a mass spectrometer, but both dilate the alveoli in the lungs and shrink blood vessels in the nose—hence ephedrine’s use as a decongestant—while raising blood pressure and releasing adrenaline. The key difference is that meth, unlike ephedrine, prompts wide-scale releases of the neurotransmitters dopamine and epinephrine.
What the 1997 tests at the University of North Texas showed was that, at least in lab animals, mirror-imaging pseudoephedrine was equally as effective as regular pseudoephedrine as a decongestant. Unlike regular pseudo, however, the mirror-image version didn’t cause any side effects to the central nervous system, such as high blood pressure or a racing heart: the common “buzz” that one associates with cold medicine. Better yet, mirror-image pseudoephedrine could only be synthesized into mirror-image methamphetamine, which had no stimulant effects and could not then be made into regular meth.
Reding states that this experimentation ended in 2000, when the tests’ sponsor, drug maker Warner-Lambert,was acquired by Pfizer. The implication is that Pfizer didn’t want to spend the money to develop a pseudoephedrine alternative, seeing as how the old stuff worked fine. Meth addiction? Not the company’s problem, and even a business opportunity—a meth Smurfer‘s money is just as good as an ordinary citizen, after all.
Our question then is why no federal money has been used to further this research. Yes, we understand that there’s something fundamentally weird about using public dollars to bolster corporate R&D. But this strikes us as a worthwhile investment, given the economic consequences of our ongoing “war” on meth. The tab quoted here, via the RAND Corporation, is $23 billion per year. How much would it cost to further the mirror-imaging studies to develop a truly effective pseudo replacement? Even if we accept the pharmaceutical industry’s outlandish claims regarding drug-development costs, moving the cold-medicine sector past the Pseudo Era would cost only a fraction of the amount that meth consumption currently drains from the American economy every twelve months.
This innovation would also help pave the way for meaningful shifts in policy—either decriminalization or quasi-legalization. At present, meth vastly complicates that proposition because it’s relatively easy to produce domestically in small quantities. That means it would be virtually impossible to regulate should we someday opt for a regime akin to the Portuguese model. Also, to be honest, we wouldn’t mind one bit if meth were simply innovated out of existence—just because we favor drug-policy reform doesn’t mean we have to accept that all drugs are created equal.
We realize that our humble proposal is nothing more than a pipe dream—the federal government doesn’t have the means to run or supervise research along these lines. And so when it comes to dealing with meth, we’re stuck with enforcement. Good luck with that cat herding, drug warriors.