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METH: Oklahoma’s modern-day bathtub gin

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NORMAN, Okla.- A recent story from the Oklahoman describes the way in which drug cartels from Mexico have overtaken the distribution of meth in the state, bearing responsibility for around 95 percent of the substance that is used in Oklahoma. 

This wasn’t always so, but legislation passed in 2012 cracked down on the ingredients for homemade meth, resulting in a dramatic drop in “mom and pop” meth lab busts.  But an uptick in meth use continued, along with an increase in overdose deaths, 328 in 2016 alone.  Law enforcement began finding meth with a far greater purity than had been cooked up in the amateur labs they had shut down. 

A surprisingly honest observation is then made by the authors of the story: the crackdown on small-time, local meth operations has had the unintended effect of clearing the market of competitors, allowing the far more dangerous Cartels from south of the border to move operations into Oklahoma. These cartels now supply just about all the meth in the state, and they’re bringing a far more well-funded and violent element to criminal operations with them.  And, more than likely, they’re making a fortune.  There’s a “limitless demand” for the substance, according to the FBI agent quoted in the story. 

The broader truth, however, one that can be gleaned from a train of thought begun by the authors, is that there is limitless demand for getting high, not for Mexican meth in particular, and that someone will always be there to satisfy that demand. 

Following the logic just a few more steps would provide a much-needed dose of wisdom for policymakers in the Sooner State.  Cracking down on small-time, local meth cooks has provided the world’s most notorious drug cartels with an invitation to move operations into our cities, suburbs, and rural communities. 

But what caused the meth problem in the first place? 

A crackdown on safer alternatives to meth.  That crackdown began in the 80s, during Reagan’s militarization of the war on marijuana and cocaine.  The result was a crack epidemic and the rise of meth.

Mark Thornton, author of The Economics of Prohibition, calls meth a “cheap date”.  As the prohibition of safer alternatives is cracked down on, users and dealers turn to an easier-to-produce, higher-potency commodity.  He went on to describe the economic effect that the Drug War has on the drugs themselves:

“The scourge of crystal meth is another example of the "potency effect" or what has been called the "iron law of prohibition." When government enacts a prohibition, increases enforcement, or increases penalties on a good such as alcohol or drugs, it inevitably results in substitution to more adulterated, more potent, and more dangerous drugs.”

There is no way around the laws of supply and demand, which is what the Drug Warriors are attempting.  Called the “Iron Law of Prohibition” by Richard Cowan, the attempt to crack down on one substance leads to the demand for a far more dangerous substance.  The harsher the crackdown, the more violent and organized the black market becomes. 

Society pays the cost. 

Drug potency increases, becoming more dangerous.  In this sense, meth is the economic equivalent of the bathtub gin and moonshine of the 1920’s.  Production of these two substances skyrocketed once alcohol prohibition went into effect. But so did alcohol poisonings: in 1925, four years into Prohibition, alcohol poisoning killed over 4,000 people, compared to 1,064 in 1920.  People wanted to drink, but prohibition ruled out a safe, legal alternative.  These dangerous, black market brews disappeared after the repeal of Prohibition.

Meth is no different. People want to get high, but safer, legal alternatives don’t exist, thanks to the War on Drugs.  So black market entrepreneurs cooked up the dangerous synthetic now wreaking havoc across the state to satisfy demand.

In our case, uncompromising Drug War zealots have inadvertently invited the Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Beltran-Leyva Cartels, and god knows who else, into the communities of peaceful Okies.  This is no small matter, and the blame for the alarming situation should be appropriately placed on the policy and those in support of it. 

Oklahomans have got a tire fire on their hands with the current situation.  Rather than throwing water on it, it’s time to deprive it of oxygen through the legalization of safer means to getting high.  Economics is the ideal weapon to end meth in the state, expensive, time-consuming crackdowns by law enforcement have resulted in a far more dangerous situation for residents of the state.

As offensive it is to the sensibilities of polite society, people find enjoyment in getting high, and will always find ways to get high.  And there will always be enterprising men and women eager to make a fortune satisfying that “limitless demand”.  Those men and women should be free to do business in an open market with access to the court system.  The result would be a safer product of known purity and a removal of violence from the equation. 

The state could then divert the tax dollars and resources, currently used to clear the market for the cartels, towards something far more productive.

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Shane Smith

Shane Smith is an accountant and freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in economics from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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