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With the burgeoning popularity of television shows like Breaking Bad, the substance methamphetamine has slowly made its way into the mainstream consciousness of the United States. At its core, it is a stimulant drug that has been around for decades (CDC, 2007). Methamphetamine, or "meth," is "a central nervous system stimulant categorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule II amphetamine, which means it has a high potential for abuse and for psychological or physical dependence" (CDC, 2007). Despite the knowledge of the abuse potential of meth, research suggests that, even a decade ago, more than "12 million persons aged 12 and older" had used meth at least once (CDC, 2007). Such a substance does not simply materialize, though - there must be a production and distribution process in order for it to reach the end users of the drug. Interestingly, these production and distribution networks continue to evolve. Initially, "the suppliers of methamphetamine in the United Statesâ€¦ have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups" (USDOJ, n.d.). However, more recently, organized crime units, or "cartels," from Mexico have begun to traffic in the drug as well, as the result of a "conscious decision by the leaders of these powerful organizations" (USDOJ, n.d.). This paper will establish that there are a variety of ways in which meth poses a significant criminal issue to the United States. Its status as a Schedule II substance means that its use and sale is illegal, and so criminal activity is derived simply from the substance's existence in the United States. Further, research suggests that the majority of production and distribution is controlled by groups of people who break the law in ways other than simple production of the drug (i.e., drug cartels). Finally, there are other aspects of criminality, including attempts to legally control what are called "precursor" substances, like red phosphorous and pseudoephedrine (VDOH, 2012), that continue to have implications for the United States outside of the actual use of the drug.
The immediate physical and psychological effects of meth use are one of the strongest motivations for officials in the United States to take the use of the substance seriously. Although it might be argued that classification of the substance as Schedule II is a determination made by officials (that, for example, its criminality is determined by the law, not the other way around), the litany of negative health effects suggests otherwise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), long-term meth use "can cause physical symptoms (decayed teeth, weight loss, skin lesions, stroke, and heart attack) as well as mental symptoms (paranoia, hallucinations, anxiety, and irritability) and behavioral symptoms (aggressiveness, violence, and isolation)" (CDC, 2007). It stands to reason that the production, distribution, and use of this substance would be controlled, given these consequences. It is also a substance that preys on the country's youth. The CDC reports that the typical meth user is fairly young. Specifically, "the highest rate of methamphetamine use during the past year was that for young adults aged 18 to 25, followed by youth aged 12 to 17, and then adults aged 26 or older" (CDC, 2007). During these age groups, youth are often finishing high school and entering college, and it would seem that a substance producing the physical effects noted by the CDC would significantly impede these youths' ability to learn to contribute meaningfully to society.
In addition to the basic physical effects, however, there are a variety of aspects of meth use and production that have a negative economic impact on the United States. The RAND Corporation performed an economic analysis of the impact of meth use on the United States for the year 2005, considering "burden of addiction, premature death, drug treatment, and aspects of lost productivity, crime and criminal justice, health care, production and environmental hazards, andâ€¦ child endangerment" (Nicosia, Pacula, Kilmer, Lundberg, & Chiesa, 2009). These researchers report that the cost of methamphetamine use in 2005 was somewhere between $16.2 and $48.3 billion dollars (Nicosia et al., 2009). While this figure may not seem significant in the face of an ever-increasing national debt in the trillions of dollars, it is important to understand the significance of the economic losses associated with this crime. For example, the current salary for a federal district judge is $174,000 (United States Courts, 2012). If the very lowest estimate for the economic impact of meth ($16.2 billion) were used to hire federal district judges, it would hire 93,103 judges. In addition, although harm to the environment is a portion of the cost calculus for economic harm, it poses its own unique problems. According to one estimate developed by the Illinois Attorney General's office, "every point of meth manufactured produces up to six points of toxic meth waste - waste that makers routinely pour down drains, toss onto roadsides, or dump in ditches or farm fields" (Madigan, 2010). Further, the human cost of cleaning up meth labs themselves, independently of the toxic waste that harms the environment, can be significant, as there is a potential for poorly-run labs to simply explode and harm law enforcement officers attempting to process them or clean them (Madigan, 2010).
Finally, there is a significant potential for violence and violent behavior associated with meth production and use. This violence is far-reaching and exceeds the behavior that might be produced by the physical and psychological effects of the drug itself. The United States Department of Justice categorizes the violence associated with meth into three groups: "by users under the influence of the drug, by users who commit violent acts to obtain money or more of the drug, and by distributors who use violence in the course of conducting their business" (USDOJ, n.d.). The violence perpetrated by distributors of the substance can be surprisingly widespread. According to the same report, a single killing conducted as part of a "turf war" over meth in 1993 resulted in an additional 26 murders within the subsequent six months (USDOJ, n.d.). Given the harm to persons by the substance itself and through other violent means, and the economic and environmental harm to society, there can be no question that meth use and distribution is a significant criminal issue.
As a substance, meth has a long history, not all of which is associated with criminal activity and/or crime. It was first created in 1919, and although it was used by a variety of people for the next several decades, it was not illegal until the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970 (VDOH, 2012). It is therefore technically correct to suggest that the crime of using methamphetamine did not exist prior to 1970. The same historical analysis indicates that stronger variants of meth were synthesized in the 1990s, and that production began in 'meth labs' in homes and other locations (VDOH, 2012). Currently, however, a significant contributor to the prevalence of meth-related crime is the increase in Mexican drug cartel activity. "A justice department report in 2010 described a 'high and increasing' availability of methamphetamine mainly because of large-scale drug production in Mexico" (York, 2012). Because the crime of 'meth use' necessarily relies on the distribution of the substance, one logically can infer that the primary factor associated with the prevalence of most meth-related crime in the current decade is the proliferation of cartel involvement in meth production and distribution. This also means that instances of environmental damage in the United States stemming from meth labs might logically be flat lining as local producers are run out of business by their larger competitors. For instance, although meth lab 'incidents' increased relatively linearly between 1995 and 2009 in Indiana, the rate of increase has slowed dramatically since 2009 (Indiana Methamphetamine Investigation System, 2012), a date which coincides roughly with increased cartel involvement in meth production and distribution.
There are a variety of other factors that might also affect the prevalence of meth-related crime. The first is the extent to which other activities associated with meth use are criminalized. In the same way that there was no real 'prevalence of meth-related crime' prior to its illegalization in 1970, new crimes associated with meth use might enter the public discourse or the judicial system through the establishing of precedents. One such example is a case of a mother who breastfed her infant after taking meth and who was subsequently charged with murder (McKinley, 2011). It is possible that the law, as applied to this case, will create a new spectrum of meth-related crimes, which in turn will affect the prevalence of such crimes in general. Another significant factor that might influence the prevalence of meth-related crime is the extent to which the ingredients used in the production of meth are available to the general public. As noted earlier, one of the primary ingredients used in the creation of meth is pseudoephedrine, which is a cough suppressant found in a wide variety of over-the-counter medications (NIH, 2012). This substance is currently widely available, although the federal government requires vendors who sell the substance to track its purchase, and have begun to take legal action against pharmacies and other organizations that do not sufficiently work to prevent the use of pseudoephedrine in the production of meth (Reuters, 2010). Although restrictions on the sale of substances like pseudoephedrine probably will not affect production of the substance outside of the United States (such as by Mexican drug cartels), it may affect the prevalence of crimes related to production and use within the United States stemming from local meth labs.
Although there are a wide variety of crimes associated with meth use, production, and distribution, one might logically suggest that a reduction in the demand for methamphetamine in the United States would positively combat all meth-related crime. If there are fewer buyers for meth, then there are fewer users and fewer financial incentives for distributors to become involved with the drug. Therefore, one potential policy solution for meth-related crime would be the use of a proven method to reduce demand for the substance. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) reports that "drug courts significantly reduce drug use and crime and are more cost-effective than any other proven criminal justice strategy" (NADCP, 2012). Programs associated with the NADCP have demonstrated tremendous results in combating meth addiction among those who enter the judicial system. "For methamphetamine-addicted people, drug courts increase treatment program graduation rates by nearly 80%. When compared to eight other programs, drug courts quadrupled the length of abstinence from methamphetamine [and] drug courts reduce methamphetamine use by more than 50% compared to outpatient treatment alone" (NADCP, 2012). To the extent that these results hold true nationally and over time, it would seem that drug courts are a powerful public policy solution to meth-related crimes. Such substantial reductions in addition represent not only fewer crimes by meth users but also significantly less income potential for meth distribution and production, which in turn should lower rates of other meth-related crimes.
Other potential public policy solutions include stricter regulation of the so-called precursor substances used to make meth. As noted previously, policies currently are in place throughout the United States to combat the purchasing of substances like pseudoephedrine that are used to make meth. However, these policies have the potential to be circumvented. Some states, such as Kansas, have begun to use a more comprehensive "statewide logging system for meth precursors" (KMPP, 2012). Systems like these have proven more efficacious at not only preventing the acquisition of precursor substances by meth cooks, but also at reducing the economic harm posed to pharmacies through shoplifting and other illicit means of acquiring the substances. Unfortunately, however, the primary producer and distributor of meth (Mexican drug cartels) largely will be unaffected by this second type of policy. Drug enforcement agents have not proposed solutions beyond typical border enforcement to address meth crossing into the United States, although increased surveillance has produced some recent seizure successes (Salter, 2012). It may be the case that demand reduction through programs like drug courts is the optimal public policy solution at this time.
Unfortunately, meth-related crime is a criminal justice problem without a visible end in sight. It is a 'perfect storm' of uncontrollable behavior via addictive mechanisms and criminals who see profit potential in their ability to facilitate that behavior. The consequences of meth-related crime span far beyond the individual users and affect society as a whole via widespread criminal activity, environmental consequences, and economic costs to a variety of different systems. At the present time, it seems as though awareness of the significant problem posed by meth is important because public policy needs to be able to reduce the demand for the substance. Evidence suggests that the most efficacious strategy to reduce the prevalence of meth-related crime in the United States at the present time is to support demand reduction via programs like drug courts.