In the war on drugs, one victory

Action by states and the Congress has resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of US meth labs.

Virginia's attorney general calls methamphetamine "probably the ugliest drug...in 40 years." Many other law-enforcement officials agree. So it's heartening that state and federal effort targeting these illegal uglies is hitting a bull's eye – at least in reducing the US supply of "meth."

Since the early 1990s, a meth resurgence has spawned thousands of hidden labs in motel rooms, barns, and homes in rural and suburban America. But the number of these meth kitchens is radically declining, thanks to stepped-up law enforcement and laws that restrict the supply of a key ingredient.

Meth is known to be quickly addictive, with severe health repercussions. But it also has a social ripple effect. Children of users may be abused as the user turns violent, or neglected for days during the user's crash period. Kids and neighbors are also endangered by the potentially explosive manufacturing process, which produces five pounds of toxic waste for every pound of meth.

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As the meth outbreak gathered steam, though, so did many states, followed by the US Congress. Awareness, training, and shared databases helped local and federal law enforcement, and many states passed laws restricting the supply of the key meth ingredient pseudoephedrine, found in cold medicines. Last year, Congress brought uniformity to those laws by requiring pharmacies to move the medicines behind the counter and limit the amount customers can buy in a day. Customers must also show an ID.

The results are striking. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the number of lab sites seized in the US has dropped by 58 percent since the peak in 2003 – to 7,347 last year. This is an instance in which laws worked.

Would that this were the end of America's meth challenge, though.

The vacuum left by the steep decline in the home-cooked stuff is being filled by meth smuggled in from well-supplied labs in Mexico, which account for about 80 percent of the US market. Success with the US labs hints that in the drug fight, it is perhaps easier to go after the small fry than the big fish. (Indeed, an effective method to discourage theft of the narcotic-based pain reliever OxyContin is to encourage pharmacies to lock their supply in a safe – yet theft is only a small source of this abused drug compared with the big, open pipeline of the Internet.)

Meth use is a mixed picture. It's down significantly among teens, most likely because they're scared by what they hear about it. But the number of Americans who have used meth has dropped only slightly, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Other data show meth spreading to the Eastern US and urban areas.

Even if meth use overall appears steady, the big dropoff in labs frees local law enforcement from the costly, time consuming, and dangerous work of shutting down and cleaning up domestic meth labs.

That means they should be in a better position to focus on meth from Mexico, which also has the attention of the DEA. That agency has trained more than 2,000 officers in Mexico in how to shut down and clean up meth labs and is also working internationally to stop the diversion of chemicals to these labs.

The war on drugs has many fronts, but at least on one of them, there's been real progress.

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