Monday, January 30, 2006

Unintended consequences

In the 1980s, car theft was a huge problem. So car alarms became common. Sophisticated systems were developed to prevent someone from using a car if they didn't have the key.

Car thieves responded by waiting until the key was in the car, and thus began the much more deadly practice of car-jacking. It circumvents the security system, making that money ill-spent, and exposes the driver to much greater personal risk. More security lead to less safety.

Many states are now confronting methamphetamine use. Meth is a problem on three levels. Like all drug users, tweakers need money to buy drugs, so they turn to crime. Second, meth labs use lots of incredibly toxic chemicals, are prone to explode, and leave toxic residue after the lab is gone. Plus all those fumes go to the cookers' heads, and they have a tendency to shoot first. Third, meth messes you up.

States got aggressive, funding state labs heavily to process evidence that would shut down meth labs. Since cookers get paranoid and the labs are smelly, loud, and generally easy to spot from close up, meth labs tend to be located in more rural areas, so states like Kansas are on the front line of this particular battle. And they cracked down hard on the home labs. Restricting access to the raw materials, hunting down the labs, prosecuting the hell out of people they catch. It all sounds so sensible. It worked. In Kansas, drug lab raids were down for 2005, which law enforcement took as a sign that they were winning the war.

And that's where unintended consequences come in:
In the seven months since Iowa passed a law restricting the sale of cold medicines used to make methamphetamine, seizures of homemade methamphetamine laboratories have dropped to just 20 a month from 120. People once terrified about the neighbor's house blowing up now walk up to the state's drug policy director, Marvin Van Haaften, at his local Wal-Mart to thank him for making them safer.

But Mr. Van Haaften, like officials in other states with similar restrictions, is now worried about a new problem: the drop in home-cooked methamphetamine has been met by a new flood of crystal methamphetamine coming largely from Mexico.
The crystal meth is more potent, so people are dying of overdoses, and instead of local losers pushing the drug, the Mexican mafia gets to take over the market after law enforcement cleans out the competition.