The pattern's familiar. A problem gathers steam in America and then boils over. Washington feels the heat and takes action.
That's what is happening with the highly destructive use of methamphetamine, or "meth." But Washington is in danger of repeating another pattern: acting too late, and inappropriately.
A meth resurgence began as a rural problem in the early 1990s, spreading from the West to the Midwest and South, and is now seeping into urban areas. The Bush administration has maintained that fighting marijuana is its anti-drug priority (on the grounds that it's a "gateway drug" that's widely used). But many local officials argue that meth should be its priority.
In a recent survey of county law enforcement officials from 45 states, 58 percent identified their No. 1 drug problem as meth. It may have fewer users (about 1 million compared with 15 million for marijuana), but its effect is vastly more destructive and ripples far beyond the user.
Relatively inexpensive, meth can be "cooked" at home or in "labs" with recipes from the Internet using the common ingredient pseudoephedrine, found in cold medicines. The odorous manufacturing process is prone to fires and explosions (hence, its production in remote buildings such as barns). It also gives off toxic waste - five to seven pounds for every pound of meth.
Then there are the social and health challenges. Meth is known to be quickly addictive, and can result in violent behavior and paranoia. Users can be awake for days and then crash for days, so deeply asleep they can't be roused - or care for their children.
As a result, social services in communities across the country are overwhelmed with neglected and abused children and with the need for long-term treatment for addicts. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the surveyed county officials report increases in robberies and burglaries due to meth.
Jolted awake by alarm bells around the US, the House last week passed two amendments to the State Department's authorization bill. They're aimed at stopping the ballooning import of pseudoephedrine and meth from Mexico, a major supplier to the US. More comprehensive House legislation is in the works. The Senate is also considering a bill to move pseudoephedrine products behind the counter, and to restrict the quantity a person can buy.
But these measures, while well meant, may not be appropriate. First, 31 states have already introduced some control of pseudoephedrine, and they're getting results. Oklahoma passed one of the strongest measures just over a year ago, and law enforcement seizures of meth labs there are down 95 percent. Officials in some states complain the Senate bill would preempt their tougher laws. And pharmaceutical companies are already starting to strip pseudoephedrine from their products.
Since 1999, meth use has actually dropped within a significant user group: young people. That's according to the University of Michigan's Lloyd Johnston, who studies meth use among eighth, 10th-, and 12th-graders, as well as young adults who finished high school. But he worries he might be missing an important group by not counting dropouts.
On the other hand, it's important to note that meth is also used as a stimulant by the unemployed and workers holding down two jobs (a problem that may persist if wages don't rise with the cost of living), and that its use now crosses socioeconomic groups.
What the states need is not new federal legislation but a refocused effort on the part of the Bush administration: to work more closely with Mexico through existing channels; to restore millions of dollars in antidrug funding that's now on the budget chopping block; and to stop classifying meth as just a regional problem that therefore doesn't qualify for national drug-fighting dollars. Especially needed from the entire antidrug community: the kind of emphasis on prevention and treatment that helped break the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s.
Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recognized meth as "the most dangerous drug in America." Reportedly, the administration is soon to announce a methamphetamine policy. If it doesn't get in the way of states, and doesn't add new layers of bureaucracy, it will have done well.