Twenty-First Century Illicit Drugs and Their Discontents: Methamphetamine—The Downs of Ups, or Tweaking the Night Away

Legal Memo Crime and Justice

Twenty-First Century Illicit Drugs and Their Discontents: Methamphetamine—The Downs of Ups, or Tweaking the Night Away

December 21, 2023 Over an hour read Download Report
Paul Larkin
Rumpel Senior Legal Research Fellow
Paul is a Senior Legal Research Fellow in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Just as the slow drip of acid gradually corrodes metal, illicit use of methamphetamine eats away at one’s body, soul, mind, and life. Meth’s legitimate uses are few, and its harms are many. It as-saults a user’s body, potentially causing irreparable physical damage and death, and destroys one’s mind, social relations, and soul. We can try to persuade people to avoid its use and attempt to develop pharmaceuticals comparable to the ones currently used to treat opioid users for who-ever has started down that path with meth. We need to commit ourselves to the pursuit of whatever options there are or might be to help our brothers and sisters avoid or overcome meth’s facially enticing allure but inevitably gruesome vortex.

Key Takeaways

In 2022, approximately 1.6 million Americans aged 12 and older reported suffering from meth use disorder, and 2.5 million in that cohort reported using meth.

Methamphetamine assaults a user’s body, potentially causing irreparable physical damage and death, and destroys the user’s mind, social relations, and soul.

We need to pursue whatever options there are or might be to help our fellow Americans avoid or overcome the inevitably gruesome consequences of meth use.

A “feint” is a deceptive move intentionally done to disguise your intent. Fake left, go right. Get fooled by a feint in basketball, and it might cost you two points, three at most. Get fooled by an illicit drug, and it’s a whole ’nother ballgame.

The illicit drugs best known today are fentanyl, cocaine, and cannabis: fentanyl, a powerful analgesic, because of the massive number of overdose deaths its (predominantly unknowing) use has caused;REF cocaine because of its 1980s Miami Vice–like ambience and widespread use in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of “crack;” and cannabis because a near-majority of states authorize its cultivation, sale, and possession for recreational use,REF despite the fact that those activities are felonies under federal lawREF even when done for any so-called medical use.REF

But a third drug, methamphetamine, the world’s second most widely used illicit drug,REF is another major concern today. Initially seen as a Midwest small town problem—dismissed “as one more unseen, unfathomable aspect of life in the Middle”—methamphetamine is now seen for what it really is: a major policy problem.REF It has been colorfully described as “[a] Christmas package with a time bomb inside.”REF This Legal Memorandum will explain why that is an apt description.REF

The History of Methamphetamine

Known colloquially as “meth,” “crank,” “ice,” “poor man’s cocaine,” “Hillbilly Coke,” or by nearly 400 other slang terms, methamphetamine, a Schedule II controlled substance,REF is a stimulant, an offshoot of amphetamine that is two to three times as powerful as the parent drug and with a longer-lasting effect.REF Unlike morphine and heroin, which derive from the poppy plant, amphetamines—known colloquially as “speed,” “uppers,” “bennies,” “dexies,” “diet pills,” and “pep pills”—are synthetic or man-made chemicals.REF Ephedrine, an active ingredient in methamphetamine, is found in an herb that the Chinese have used in medicine for 5,000 years.REF A German chemist synthesized ephedrine in 1887, and a Japanese chemist created methamphetamine in 1919 for use as a nasal decongestant and treatment for the common cold and hay fever.REF

All amphetamines, including meth, are classified as central nervous system stimulants because a principal effect of their use is to excite that system, including the brain, stimulating the production and release of the natural neurotransmitter dopamine, a compound that is normally produced by non-drug pleasurable events such as watching a puppy at play.REF Amphetamines are both water-soluble and fat-soluble, so they can be easily administered and cross the blood-brain barrier.REF Methamphetamine can be used in pill or powdered form, which allows for multiple vehicles for use.

Initially, amphetamines were seen as a valuable, safe, and nonaddictive pharmaceutical, a “wonder drug” used for numerous purposes.REF For example, amphetamines opened bronchial and nasal passages, so they were used to treat asthma and nasal congestion.REF They also raised a user’s blood pressure, which helped patients with weak hearts or irregular heartbeats.REF Because amphetamines dissipate fatigue, fend off sleepiness, enhance peripheral vision and auditory ability, and generate alertness, clarity, endurance, perseverance, physical activity, well-being, and euphoric confidence, the military found their use enormously helpful.REF As long ago as the Spanish Civil War and during World War II, participants—including Germany, Japan, England, Canada, and the United States—distributed amphetamines to soldiers to remain vigilant while on duty.REF Amphetamines also had a wide range of nonmilitary uses.REF Physicians prescribed them as a pick-me-up, for weight loss, for libido enhancement, and for a host of other purposes.REF Long-haul truck drivers, college students behind on term papers or studying for exams, and professional athletes have used them to stave off fatigue and enhance their performance.REF

Ironically, “[t]he truly singular aspect of meth’s attractiveness” is that for more than 70 years, it has been “associated with hard work”—“the choice of the American working class.”REF As author Nick Reding puts it, “[t]hroughout its hundred-year history, meth has been perhaps the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational.”REF

Not surprisingly, meth also came to be used merely for its euphoric rush. Unlike other drugs, such as opiates or cannabis, whose initial use is commonly described as unpleasant, amphetamines are uniformly seen as quite pleasurable,REF variously described as feeling as if you’re a Jack Dawsonesque “king of the world”REF or as experiencing a “whole body orgasm.”REF That likely occurred on an isolated basis through the 1950s, but recreational meth use became more widespread beginning in the 1960s, perhaps beginning during the “Summer of Love” in 1967.REF Powdered meth provides an almost immediate and more intense “rush” or “flash” when snorted, insufflated, smoked, or injected (known as “slamming”)REF and provides a longer-lasting high than cocaine, lasting perhaps for 8-12 hours instead of 20–30 minutes.REF Methamphetamine’s seductive charm is undeniable.

But so too is the severity of the downfall from its use.REF

We now know well that methamphetamine is dangerous, sometimes even fatal, and, when used illicitly, potentially quite addictive.REF For that reason, the legitimate therapeutic uses of methamphetamine are far fewer today than were accepted in the 1940s, 1950s, and (most of) the 1960s. Physicians may prescribe it as a treatment for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder as well as a last-resort, short-term treatment for obesity.REF In each case, the quantities prescribed are far lower than the amounts that illicit meth users consume.REF Lower amounts are necessary to avoid triggering the harms that result from meth’s effect on the brain when someone makes his or her first mistake and uses meth illicitly.

Non-prescription use of methamphetamine causes the sympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system to generate several physical and psychological effects: tachycardia, hyperthermia, increased respiratory rate, vasoconstriction, enhanced energy, alertness, self-confidence, and productivity.REF But obtaining those results is not why people repeatedly use methamphetamine for pleasure and become dependent on it. The addictive effects of meth come about in two ways. It triggers the release of dopamine, a compound associated with feelings of happiness and euphoria, from vesicles at the distal end of neural dendrites, and it also prevents the otherwise normal cellular reuptake of dopamine done to husband that compound for later use.REF The result is that methamphetamine use can increase dopamine levels up to 1,500 percent beyond what is normal.REF The experience has been described by users as “ascending into the cosmos, with every fiber of [my] body trembling with happiness.”REF That experience can overwhelm even adverse effects of high doses of amphetamines, such as a temporary psychosis resembling schizophrenia.REF In fact, the intensity of the rush readily leads to a user’s second mistake: repeat use.

As the “rush” wears off, the user “crashes,” with fatigue, restlessness, nervousness, agitation, anxiety, irritability, and depression replacing nirvana.REF “The comedown from crystal meth is famously wicked.”REF The user thinks that a repeat meth performance will end that distress and restore bliss. “The urge to repeat the drug experience is often irresistible.”REF Because “[t]he intensity of that rush is dose-related,” meth users tend to make their third mistake: They consume increasingly higher doses, increase the frequency of their meth use, or both.REF The result is “a cycle of additional doses and increasing overall cumulative dose”—a “run” that can last for several days,” an experience common to users known as “speed freaks.”REF That spells trouble. The brain has now been taught to seek methamphetamine relentlessly in order to reproduce that experience.REF

Repeated cycles of meth use—a user’s fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc., mistakes—repeat the feeling of “crashing” and render a user severely dependent on the drug. He is now in a wrestling match with a drug that won’t tap out; his life is now “a complete preoccupation with the drug and its effects.”REF That is when the user’s real nightmare begins, because meth has “hijacked” the brain’s higher reasoning functions.REF

The vast majority of meth users do not become addicted to the drugREF—which is fortunate. Long-term users can suffer from a host of adverse physical and psychological outcomes either from meth use alone or from polydrug use, a common practice among speed freaks.REF The adverse physical effects include dehydration, hyperthermia, hypertension, malnutrition, cachexic-like weight loss, damage to the cardiovascular system and the brain’s blood vessels, an expedited aging process, ulcerated regions of the skin due to scratching at “meth bugs,” “meth mouth,”REF and hepatitis or HIV/AIDS from sharing needles.REF It is as if “a person is literally falling apart from the inside out.”REF

Psychological problems include a diminished ability to concentrate, incoherent thought processes, mild-to-moderate neuropsychological impairment,REF anxiety and poor impulse control,REF depression,REF confusion, sleeplessness, paranoia,REF delusions, and visual or auditory hallucinations (e.g., “seeing angels and demons” or believing that “God spoke to [a user] through people on television”).REF Users can die from the sequalae of drug use (e.g., hypertension-caused hemorrhagic stroke).REF Addiction leaves chronic users with “a brainwashed slavery that deprives [them] of free will and turns [them] towards self-harm in the search for dope.”REF

Finally, chronic (or high dose) meth use can also damage the nervous system’s ability to produce dopamine, a compound necessary for non-drug-induced feelings of pleasure.REF Depletion of the body’s dopamine reserves and damage to its dopamine-production capacity can leave users suffering from anhedonia (in this case the inability to experience pleasure from anything other than meth use) as well as from Parkinson’s Disease–like behavior and an unquenchable rage.REF

Meth abuse also can damage entirely innocent and sometimes unknowing third parties. Users can experience serious bouts of anger, even homicidal or suicidal ideation.REF Sometimes they act on it, becoming violent toward themselves (e.g., head banging) or others (e.g., lashing out at family members or strangers perceived to be a threat)REF or criminally neglect their children.REF It therefore can be said that the effect of meth on chronic users, in a term known to criminologists, is “criminogenic”—that is, it causes users to commit crimes.REF Those psychological problems also can be subject to a “Kindling Effect” or “Reverse Tolerance” in which meth-generated psychotic symptoms reappear and worsen with each new use.REF All of these symptoms, of whatever sort, drive away family and friends when meth users need them the most.REF

Then there is the sense of real, personal loss felt by a user’s children or family from the physical presence but mental disappearance of a mother or father—not to mention the potential physical abuse that family members can sufferREF or the risk of illness resulting from a meth-contaminated home.REF Consider also the potential losses from meth-impaired driving. “People who ingest methamphetamine have no business getting behind the wheel of a car.”REF Sadly, some do. So now add to meth’s societal costs the pain felt by someone mutilated, crippled, or killed, perhaps along with the victim’s family, by a motor vehicle driven by someone who is high on meth.REF

Withdrawal gives new meaning to the term “unpleasant.” Discontinuance gives rise to fatigue, severe depression, sleeplessness, psychosis, and intense cravings for the drug.REF To worsen matters, there is no drug like Narcan to nullify the immediate effect of a meth overdose; nor is there a long-term treatment for meth addiction like the drugs Methadone or Buprenorphine, substitutes for heroin that alleviate the feelings of withdrawal.REF No, a meth user must deal with the physical and psychological fallout from prior use on his or her own. And treatment for a meth addiction is difficult, in part because its Siren’s call generates “intense cravings” for the drug, which “can make efforts to terminate use long and treacherous.”REF Never getting started is a far better and easier road to traverse than is trying to quit.REF

It has been said that “[t]he nature of all addictive drugs is to promise bliss but deliver woe.”REF Users expect St. Nicholas but get Krampus. That certainly applies to meth. “Like the two-faced Roman god Janus,” meth is a drug “with two very different sides.”REF Used clinically in small doses, meth’s effects are “constructive and therapeutic.”REF By contrast, used in large doses without medical supervision,REF methamphetamine “can ravage the body and warp the mind.”REF That might explain why it has been called “‘a sociocultural cancer,’”REF “the evil one,”REF “[t]he devil drug of the new millennium,”REF and “a Frankensteinian-type monster over which we seemingly have no control.”REF As Professor Mark Kleiman has said, meth is “‘about the ugliest drug there is.’”REF It is a “potent powder that boosts energy, focuses concentration and helps you stay up at night,” in the words of Frank Owen, a former user.REF But it also does more than that: “[M]eth is more like a machine than a drug. But just as in a dystopian sci-fi novel, the machines eventually take over the world.”REF

Methamphetamine in Contemporary America

Although most of the nation’s attention has focused on plant-based opioids like heroin and synthetic analgesics like fentanyl, methamphetamine has been eating away at the nation. Users, police officers, emergency service personnel, and drug counselors have known this,REF but the media largely have not reported that the United States is suffering from an unnerving spread of methamphetamine.REF

Meth addicts present “the rawest face of addiction,” drag “themselves through the nighttime streets, howling, hysterical, starving.”REF According to the 2023 report on drug use by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 1.6 million Americans aged 12 and older reported suffering from meth use disorder and 2.5 million people in that cohort reported using meth in 2022.REF The former number almost matches the population of West Virginia, and the latter exceeds that of New Mexico.REF That is a nontrivial number of potential lives lost or ruined. Widespread meth use by the homeless also helps create the encampments we have seen in numerous large cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.REF “Though other drugs and alcohol are part of the mix, many encampments are simply meth colonies.”REF

One explanation for the rise of this drug is the world’s oldest motive: money. The manufacture and distribution of amphetamines is a commercially profitable business.REF Indeed, the meth business is “thriving.”REF The explanation for this is simple: Amphetamines are “only a little more difficult to manufacture than alcohol,”REF and the production process “does not require huge, heavily guarded growing fields or sophisticated equipment.”REF Amateurs can “cook” meth with a small number of “simple, readily available, and inexpensive chemicals”—such as pharmaceutical decongestants, lithium batteries, campfire fuel, drain cleaner, and a two-liter plastic bottle—and the process can be done in “makeshift labs hidden away in cheap motels, in mobile homes, or in isolated farms and ranches.”REF The meth business is also quite profitable. “Just $4,000 in raw ingredients converts to 8 pounds of meth worth $50,000 wholesale,” and that estimate was in 2006 dollars.REF The profit margin for meth can be in the range of 3,000–4,000 percent.REF Given those numbers, it would be a surprise if people were not attracted to that business.

That is particularly true in places like the American Midwest. Some commentators posit that socioeconomic changes explain the rise of meth there.REF The combination of (1) the loss of jobs due to a changing workforce resulting from the influx of legal and illegal aliens and (2) the consolidation of small family farms into giant corporate agribusinesses has led to impoverishment and generated a sense of purposelessness for many farmers and their families. The relative ease of acquiring the precursor chemicals, low population densities in farmland areas, and the manageable cooking process have enabled some out-of-work parties not deterred by the risk of arrest and imprisonment to produce meth as a profitable alternative undertaking.REF

A related explanation is that the meth business has matured over time. Beginning in the 1950s, small-scale, independent producers were the chefs principally responsible for creating meth from readily available inexpensive ingredients like the pseudoephedrine found in everyday, over-the-counter decongestant medications and cold medicines.REF Biker gangs, particularly the Hell’s Angels, entered the business in the 1970s and 1980s.REF Later, small meth entrepreneurs re-entered the business by working in small, clandestine labs in sparsely populated rural areas in the western or midwestern states,REF where the chemical odors would be less likely to be noticed, or other locations that could be abandoned after production, such as cheap motel rooms.REF Some domestic producers still operate very small-scale meth laboratories, the so-called “Mom and Pop” or “Beavis and Butt-Head” operations, using recipes available on the Internet.REF

But meth production is no longer a boutique business. The Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) produce an exponentially larger quantity of meth in their home nation in superlabsREF and smuggle it across our Southwestern border, using established networks to distribute it across the nation.REF Just as the harms that meth causes are not limited to its users,REF small, local markets are no longer like John Donne’s “islands,”REF separate and isolated; they are “integral cogs in a national, indeed, an international, industry.”REF

Ironically, our efforts to halt methamphetamine trafficking have contributed to the rise of the Mexican DTOs as the new meth industry leaders. In 2005, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 to make illicit meth production more difficult.REF To do so, the act required (among other things) that retail pharmacies store products containing the meth precursors ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine and sell them only on a behind-the-counter basis; demand a government-issued identification card for any purchase; maintain a written or electronic record of sales identifying “the products by name, the quantity sold, the names and addresses of purchasers, and the dates and times of the sales”; and limit the number of per visit and per month purchases.REF The act doubtless had an inhibitory effect on some local meth producers,REF but it also had an unintended adverse effect: It shifted meth production from domestic, local producers to the Mexican DTOs.REF

The 2005 act does not regulate the DTOs, which can import massive quantities of meth’s ingredients from foreign nations.REF The DTOs produce methamphetamine “on an industrial scale” at factory-like superlabs and have greatly increased the quantity and quality of meth available for sale in the process by using established distribution networks.REF Aided by factors such as “the wider opening of the border” and “expanding immigrant presence in the United States engendered by NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement],” along with “the population of illegals streaming across the border to work in meatpacking plants throughout the Great Plains, in the fields of California’s Central Valley, and in the orchards and orange groves of the Southeast,” the DTOs found themselves with “unlimited potential for a narcotic retail and distribution force,” an employee pool “that, because it was nationwide, mobile, undocumented, and protean, was almost impossible to track by law enforcement.”REF By 2012, 80 percent of the meth sold in the United States came from Mexico, and it was 90 percent pure.REF The DTOs dominate “the entire value chain,” directing “every aspect of what was now a major international narcotics phenomenon.”REF Just as Cargill, Tyson, and Archer Daniels Midland “control the food business ‘from plow to plate,’ as the marketing slogan goes,” so too do the DTOs now own the meth market.REF

We have seen that result before. Late in the 20th century, the nation stopped the flow of cocaine into the United States via the Caribbean by combining the weight of the U.S. law enforcement and military communities to spot and arrest smugglers as part of Operation Snowcap.REF But that lead the Colombian DTOs to bring Mexico DTOs into the cocaine smuggling business. The latter had smuggled cannabis across a lengthy, often unoccupied, and always porous land border with this nation and had established routes and means of entry. Once they established their smuggling monopoly, the Mexican DTOs took payment in cocaine rather than cash on a one-for-one basis, becoming full partners with the Colombians. The consequence: Our success in the Caribbean ultimately came for naught.REF

More recently, we have witnessed a similar outcome in the case of methamphetamine. Whatever success we have had in staunching the flow of meth from small-scale manufacturers to users has only led to the increased involvement of the Mexican DTOs in yet another aspect of the drug trafficking business. Additionally, by producing meth in a nation that has shown its willingness to look the other way and smuggling the product themselves along established routes, the Mexican DTOs have dispensed with the need to collaborate with Colombian cocaine growers for that drug, giving the Mexican DTOs an alternative to cocaine and a very profitable drug product.REF

Where Do We Go from Here?

America’s experience with methamphetamine can teach us at least 11 valuable lessons.

Lesson 1. Today’s methamphetamine problem is only the first wave of a series of challenges that we will face in the coming years. Historically, the principal drug of concern was heroin, because of its enticing but misery-generating, addictive, and potentially fatal effects.REF Like morphine, heroin is a refined product of the poppy plant, and poppies, like any other plant, are subject to growing cycles. In addition, opium poppies are cultivated in large fields that must be guarded before they can be processed into heroin and make a long trek to the United States.

By contrast, while just as problematic as heroin (albeit in a different way), meth is a synthetic, laboratory-created drug that can be made in a host of sites using recipes available on the Internet from reasonably available chemicals purchased at a relatively inexpensive cost.REF There is no thousands-of-miles-long supply chain, subject to interference at multiple points, before it makes its way to North America. It is born here or next door, in Mexico. Synthetic drugs multiply the difficulty of relying exclusively on a supply-side, law-enforcement-focused approach to halting or diminishing its availability.REF They are the wave of the future, and surfing that wave will be dangerous.REF

Lesson 2. As bad as the present may be, the future might be worse. If history is any guide, we might soon witness a shift from our current use of opioids like heroin and fentanyl to a greater use of stimulants like meth.REF Illicit drug use at a societal level has moved in a cycle, with large-scale use of depressants like opioids replaced by stimulants like methamphetamines before depressants return to haunt our communities.REF Seeing it as “a fentanyl substitute” that allows them to keep “withdrawal at bay,” some drug users believe that meth offers a shelter from the horrors of opioid withdrawal.REF It is, however, at best a porous shield. As author Sam Quinones has put it, “You don’t generally overdose and die on meth, you decay.”REF Long-term users ultimately resemble the hungry ghosts in the Buddhist afterlifeREF or zombie travelers wandering about aimlessly in a post-apocalyptic world, perhaps hoping that death is nigh.REF Yes, they might not die with a needle still stuck in their arms, as some fentanyl users have done, but they might wind up in the same location. That would be like sojourning in purgatory before relocating to hell. No one wants to take that journey.

Lesson 3. New drugs might have adverse effects that are not present in the immediate or short term. “[P]sychoactive drugs can be used in medicine for some time before their addictive properties are recognized.”REF That should not come as a surprise. A “theme in the history of addiction” has been that the harmful effects of some drugs do not become apparent until drug use has become widespread.REF As two methamphetamine experts have noted, “[i]t can take a period of sustained population exposure before the drug’s casualties become visible.”REF For instance, heroin was initially marketed as a cough suppressant, a valuable medicine in a day when tuberculosis killed thousands and coughing spread the disease.REF Meth is another excellent example. It took decades for medicine and society to recognize that amphetamines, including meth, are addictive and deadly to users and harmful to everyone who encounters them.REF As was true in the case of cigarettes, meth ruined or cost numerous lives before we realized the problem that we had on our hands.

Lesson 4. Noble purposes do not guarantee only positive outcomes. The military administered amphetamines to soldiers during World War II to further the war effort. That was an entirely noble plan of action and surely had a positive short-term effect, but it might have contributed to adverse long-term effects of meth use that we see today by giving the federal government’s imprimatur to the distribution and use of what we now know to be a dangerous drug.

Also, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 in the hope that it would reduce the supply of meth by making it more burdensome to acquire its precursor chemicals from retail businesses. That, too, was a noble effort, and in the short run, it did make it more onerous for small-scale labs to acquire the ingredients needed to churn out meth. But it also contributed to the problem we face today. That law does not regulate the sale of meth precursors beyond this nation, nor does it hamper the DTOs’ ability to import those precursors from manufacturers in other countries that are willing to ship their products to Mexico. The Mexican DTOs are now the principal source of the methamphetamine used in the United States, and they operate with effective impunity in their home country. The reason is that during the administration of its current President, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexican government has effectively taken a Sergeant Schultz approachREF to the cartels’ drug trafficking.REF

Lesson 5. There is a problem whenever “wide cultural infatuation” with a drug generates interest in its use before we understand its potential costs.REF The media’s positive association between drug use and personal satisfaction can result in the expansion of its use from a small subculture to mainstream America.REF In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, celebrities such as President John Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Lenny Bruce used amphetamines, and the media lauded their actions.REF Cannabis is another drug lionized in films (e.g., Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong’s Up in Smoke) that do not discuss its problems (e.g., drug-impaired driving). Ready availability of a drug; a poor, uncertain, minimally enforced, or lackadaisical regulatory scheme; and the apparent widespread approval of using it, in the words of Professor Timothy Leary, to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”—all of those factors contributed to the erosion of communal views that it’s better to be safe than sorry. The result was a widespread increase in amphetamine use.REF For example, industry increased the quantity of amphetamines manufactured from 16,000 pounds in 1949 to more than 75,000 pounds in 1958 to more than 160,000 pounds in 1968.REF

Lesson 6. Actions trigger reactions. As Professor Mark Kleiman once wrote, the biggest cause of problems is solutions. Outlawing or limiting the use of one drug might not have the prohibitive effect that authors of legislation hoped it would have. It can lead users to resort to a different, more dangerous drug.REF Or taking steps to make it more difficult to manufacture a drug—such as the requirement making it more burdensome to purchase some cold remedies with ephedrine, a precursor chemical to methamphetamine—might burden small-scale operators but also shift production to the “big boys.” That was a result of earlier legislation. Now the Mexican DTOs produce the lion’s share of meth distributed in this nation. They can import meth’s ingredients from foreign nations, they effectively operate with impunity in Mexico, they have increased the quantity of available meth, and they can use their established distribution networks in the United States to get their product to the ultimate consumers.REF One step forward….

Lesson 7. Society needs to be skeptical of the claims made by advocates about the beneficial uses of new drugs. Long-term studies of the effects of drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration can reveal problems that were not visible during the preapproval process. For example, the amphetamine combination known as Fen-Phen, prescribed for weight-loss, had to be removed from the market after receiving the FDA’s approval because studies showed that its use damaged the heart.REF So even companies acting entirely in good faith can make mistakes, as can the FDA. But we also know two facts that justify a healthy dose of skepticism. One is that other drugs that have been lauded as all benefit and no (or little) cost have had unanticipated (or unvoiced) adverse side effects. Consider heroin. The other fact is that not everyone who touts the benefits of a drug acts in good faith. Politicians have vouched for the benefits of medical-use cannabis even though that term is an oxymoron.REF

Lesson 8. We must recognize that macroeconomic opportunity can help people to avoid drug use as a means of aestheticizing themselves to a life without hope. Serious drug users often have numerous other problems that gave rise to and are connected with their addiction, one of which is the inability to find better-paying jobs.REF The criminal justice system cannot be a device for addressing a life filled with abuse, whether physical, psychological, or sexual; the absence of a job or any worthwhile education or training; the presence of poor health stemming from a lifetime of drug use, poor nutrition, and limited medical care; and despair that there is no road toward a less wretched future.REF The system cannot remedy those harms in a person’s life, and it is chimerical to believe that it can. But improving the nation’s macro- and microeconomies might be a start toward a solution for individuals that avoids drug use and gives them a basis for hoping that they can make tomorrow a better day than yesterday and today were.

Lesson 9. We must acknowledge that we will not and cannot eliminate the illicit production, distribution, and use of dangerous drugs like methamphetamine. Honesty demands as much.REF To date, standard drug treatment efforts for meth addiction have not proven successful.REF One consequence is that we need to step up our education efforts to show people, especially juveniles, what a methamphetamine addiction truly looks like: not schlocky commercials like the “This is your brain on drugs” series, ones using teenage actors frying eggs in frying pans or slamming frying pans into stovetops, but commercials like the ones that depict what happens to real-life people from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes, people who can no longer talk because their vocal chords have been removed because of cancer (or who made the commercial before dying).REF We also need to develop drugs that nullify the effect of methamphetamine without causing withdrawal symptoms, the same way that Narcan, Methadone, and Buprenorphine work for opioids. That is, we need to develop a drug that immediately counteracts meth’s effects as well as a long-term treatment for meth addiction, which might include a pharmacological substitute that enables meth users to recover whatever life worth living they can achieve.REF

Lesson 10. The criminal justice system can also play an indispensable role of forcing users into treatment or facing imprisonment. The cliché that “‘We can’t arrest our way out of this [predicament]’” is matched by the reality that “[w]e can’t treat our way out of it, either, as long as supply is so potent and cheap.”REF The risk of imprisonment might raise the cost for some potential users beyond their willingness to experiment with meth or might force them into treatment.REF As Doctor Robert DuPont, a former presidential drug policy advisor and the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, once told me, a voluntary drug treatment program works about as well as a voluntary imprisonment program.

Programs like drug courts,REF the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety program, and the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program can help to ensure that meth users do not abandon all efforts to discontinue their drug use.REF They hold out the promise of avoiding long-term incarceration if users can remain clean and, if they fail, use finite, short-term (but progressively longer) periods of confinement to deter them from abandoning efforts to discontinue drug use. In that way, the criminal law supplies a means of holding an addict’s feet to the fire to complete treatment. Incarceration might not always be the lead-off batter when responding to offenders with drug problems, but it must be available to pinch hit when needed.REF

Lesson 11. We always will need the criminal justice system to do what it does best: quarantine dangerous offenders. Violence has accompanied the illicit drug trade for time out of mind,REF and law enforcement plays a critical role in apprehending and punishing those who use violence as a dispute-resolution mechanism, to gain respect, or as a show of status and power. There is no reason to believe that commerce in contraband will suddenly become governed by the Marquis de Queensbury rules. Until then, law enforcement will play an indispensable role not only in stemming dealers’ efforts to profit off others’ weaknesses, but also in quarantining violent offenders. Remember: Drug traffickers might be immoral, unscrupulous, corrupt, and savagely brutal,REF but they’re not stupid. They want to make a profit and don’t want to be imprisoned.REF To the extent that law enforcement raises the cost of their business or takes some pieces off the chess board, the reduction in supply might well save misery and lives.REF


Just as the slow drip of acid gradually corrodes metal, illicit use of methamphetamine eats away at one’s body, soul, mind, and life. Meth’s legitimate uses are few, and its harms are many. It assaults a user’s body, potentially causing irreparable physical damage and death, and it destroys one’s mind, social relations, and soul. There are steps that we can take to persuade people to avoid its use, and we can attempt to develop pharmaceuticals comparable to the ones currently used to treat opioid users for whoever has mistakenly started down that path with meth. What we need to do is commit ourselves to the pursuit of whatever options there are or might be to help our brothers and sisters avoid or overcome meth’s facially enticing allure but inevitably gruesome vortex.

Paul J. Larkin is the John, Barbara, and Victoria Rumpel Senior Legal Research Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. I would like to thank John Malcolm and Derrick Morgan for helpful comments on an earlier iteration of this Legal Memorandum and Bill Poole for excellent editorial comments.


Paul Larkin
Paul Larkin

Rumpel Senior Legal Research Fellow