IA: Iowa is losing the war on meth

U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst recently advanced a bipartisan anti-meth bill. Statistics from Iowa suggest more enforcement is not the answer.

Meth lab busts in Iowa have dropped to their lowest point this century. State and local police reported just eight of them in 2020, down from 305 a decade earlier. “Domestic meth labs have nearly been eradicated,” Iowa drug enforcement officials wrote in their annual report published last month.

State experts attribute the apparent success to laws passed in 2005 and 2009 to crack down on the pharmaceutical ingredients to make methamphetamine. That’s why you have to show identification to purchase pseudoephedrine at a pharmacy.

And yet, Iowa’s other indicators for meth use remain near historic highs. The war on sinus medication is not working as intended.

We won’t reverse these trends by throwing more police officers at the problem. But that won’t stop politicians from trying.

Iowa deaths in 2020 involving meth and other psychostimulants numbered 159, a 100 percent increase since 2016. Methamphetamine charges accounted for three-fourths of Iowa’s drug-related prison admissions in fiscal 2021, the highest portion any drug has achieved since the state started reporting the figures. The amount of meth seized by Iowa police is inching back toward the high mark after falling the previous two years.

Nationally, overdose deaths associated with meth nearly tripled between 2015 and 2019, according to federal statistics.

What all those figures suggest is that the government’s supply-side response to the drug overdose crisis is failing miserably. We won’t reverse these trends by throwing more police officers at the problem. But that won’t stop politicians from trying.

The U.S. Senate this week gave unanimous approval to the bipartisan Methamphetamine Response Act of 2021, which is co-sponsored by Iowa U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

The legislation declares methamphetamine an “emerging drug threat” and directs federal drug control officials to implement a response plan. The bill, fewer than 200 words, doesn’t lay out any specifics but instead leaves them for the bureaucrats to determine.

Lawmakers have made some limited progress in bolstering public health and drug treatment responses to drug-related problems but their focus still is mostly on enforcement. The emerging threat program is designed to feed intelligence about drug trafficking to a network of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Grassley said his bill “helps law enforcement better respond to the challenges presented by drug traffickers’ evolving tactics.”

Our experience in Iowa over the past couple of decades should make us skeptical that a new federal enforcement project will suddenly make prohibition tenable. Drug enforcement is the world’s biggest whack-a-mole game.

Instead of waging a war that can’t be won, policymakers should refocus on reducing the most harmful effects of drugs like meth. They should start by bolstering access to the tools that allow for safer drug use — testing kits, materials for safer injecting and insufflating, and education about dosages and treatment.

Research shows that people who have access to harm reduction resources like those are more likely to seek treatment to stop using drugs. Among people who die of a drug overdose, 100 percent will not seek treatment.

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