Pseudoephedrine Limits in the USA
The USA has laws limiting how much “over-the-counter” pseudoephedrine-containing decongestant people can buy. There are all sorts of problems with this law – non-drug-dealer grandmas being treated like drug dealers, limits that prevent families with children or disabled family members from buying enough pseudoephedrine for the whole family (in many states, you have to be 18 to purchase pseudoephedrine – and you can buy slightly more than the maximum allowable single-adult dose), and privacy concerns as people are put on national databases (run by commercial companies to exempt them from many of the privacy laws that apply to government search) to track their purchases.
The FDA hastily approved a substitute that simply doesn’t work. While pseudoephedrine shows a clear difference from a placebo, the drug we’re supposed to be using instead of pseudoephedrine – phenylephrine – is basically indistinguishable from a sugar pill for treating congestion. That said, it’s a sugar pill with a ton of side-effects, including increasing blood pressure. As you may know, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the USA, so a non-effective pill that causes increased blood pressure simply shouldn’t be on the market.
In most places in the USA, the following laws apply (some states are stricter):
- No more than 9.0g of pseudoephedrine (PSE) may be contained in products purchased by a single person in a 30 day period
- No more than 3.6g of PSE contained in products may be purchased by a single person in a 24 hour period
- Must present government-issued picture ID
- Must consent to have information recorded and available to government and other third parties
- Must be 18 or older
This is done for one reason: To make illegal methamphetime less available.
What does this have to do with gun control?
On Sunday, one of the worst mass shootings in recent history occurred in Florida, when a person decided to target members of the LGBT community. At least 49 people died, and we may hear more died soon. At least another 50 people was wounded physically in the shooting. The psychological toll is surely much higher than that.
Of course one thing that is off-the-table to our authoritarian-minded government officials: gun control. We can regulate the bedroom – Michigan lawmakers proposed a change to their sodomy law that would modify much of the language but keep oral and anal sex illegal – a felony offense. Yes, Michigan lawmakers don’t want to remove a law that allows for life in prison for a consensual blow job from the books (fortunately the law is considered unconstitutional by the courts, and, thus, can’t be used for much beyond harassment of consensual adults).
There is no place we see the authoritarian beliefs of our leaders more clearly than in combatting drug abuse. To protect people from themselves, we have gone to extraordinary measures and imposing restrictions on lawful users of legal products for the war on drugs. In fact, there is just one thing we’re unwilling to do: address the role of the gun in drug crime.
While we might have authoritarian leanings with drugs, guns are off-limits. With guns, we’re told that guns are important – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – according to the Second Amendment. If we limit handguns, semi-automatics, assault rifles, large capacity magazines, certain types of bullets, or even advocate for technology that prevents a gun-owner’s gun from being used against him by someone else, we’re told that’s a slippery slope towards taking everyone’s guns away.
Well, I have a solution. The pseudoephedrine regulations definitely impact people’s health – something arguably more important than, say, shooting beer bottles with your new gun.
Only Criminals will have Guns
One of the most common arguments against gun control is that criminals would own guns while law-abiding folk wouldn’t. That’s one reason I don’t advocate gun control, but bullet control. That aside, the meth problem that continues in our country shows that making something less available doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be less available.
While the number of meth users seems to have declined since these laws have been passed (in 2012, the levels were estimated to be about 2/3rds what they were in 2006), the number of drug-related deaths continues to rise. Not only did we not eliminate 2/3rds of the drug deaths, but we may have shifted drug users to other drugs (such as opioids). Using the National Survey on Drug Use and Abuse, and ignoring the strange statistical spike in 2006 (roughly 350,000 estimated users in 2006 compared to 140,000 in 2005 and 160,000 in 2007 – the 2006 year’s numbers are thus highly suspect and are probably closer to 150,000 in reality), we see that heroin use was somewhat flat through 2007, when it suddenly took off. That’s roughly the time the pseudoephedrine laws took effect. Unfortunately, opioids appear even more deadly than meth.
So, what is different about guns? Why won’t criminals just find another source? There are two reasons for this:
- Unlike drugs, guns are not able to be manufactured and distributed in quantity from Latin America into the USA. Much of the meth now in use in the USA is from south of the border. However, we’re the supplier of arms to Latin America. Guns pose a much more significant challenge due to their bulk, complex and difficult manufacturing process, and the relative ease at which they can be detected, unlike highly concentrated drugs. In fact, one of the reasons drug cartels send their drugs to the USA is to get guns in return – we likely would make a bigger dent in the drug war by dealing with guns than with drugs.
- There’s not a viable substitute weapon to a gun. While a meth user might take up opioids if meth becomes hard to find, a criminal that turns to swords is a lot less of a threat to people than a criminal with a gun.
Guns Don’t Kill, People Do
Likewise, pseudoephedrine doesn’t kill, people who take too much meth are the ones that are dying.
Yet, because someone else might take meth, and we’ve decided that is a bad thing, worth protecting the person against, we make the precursor chemicals – which have legal and non-drug-abuse uses – difficult to procure. We do this even when it has public health impact.
It is pretty much impossible to determine how many people in the USA die of meth overdoses – that data simply doesn’t appear to be collected or computed. But we do know that approximately 47,000 people died in 2013 through all uses of drugs, both legal and illegal. Many of these were surely suicide, accidental overdose, or unexpected drug interaction by non-recreational users. When we look at drug use rates, what we can find for death rates, etc, we can expect that, at the upper end, several thousand people die from meth overdose per year in the USA. It may be significantly less than that.
Yet we know approximately 20,000 people kill themselves with a gun and 10,000 people (same source) are victims of homicide via a gun. Even if all 20,000 of the suicide victims would have found other mechanisms, many of the 10,000 homicide victims would be with us if guns were not available to the shooter. Either way, that’s significantly more lives saved than we can hope to save through any war on meth, even if somehow we managed to eliminate all meth and all meth users simply gave up meth and all other illegal drugs.
If it’s important to stop drug deaths, why is it unimportant to stop gun deaths?
A Potential Solution
It’s simple: regulate bullets like decongestant.
- 9.0 grams of gunpowder-type propellent per 30 days per adult. Assuming a 5 grain load for a typical 9mm round, that’s 324mg of propellent per round. Thus, an average gun owner could purchase 27 rounds per month.
- Because buying large quantities at once is associated with danger of illicit use, no more than 3.6 grams in a 24 hour period. That is roughly 11 rounds. Of course you still can’t exceed the 27 rounds per month.
- Purchasers must be 18
- Purchasers must present government-issued ID
- Purchasers must sign a statement that they will not use the rounds for undesirable purposes
- Purchase history is stored in a private national database accessible to the federal and state government
It’s simple. I suspect this would, at the least, make mass shootings much more difficult, and impose on many legitimate gun owners the same type of one-size-fits-all approach that decongestants have now.
Or, perhaps, you could look at Australia’s model.
Disclaimer: I own guns. My first gun was given to me by my parent’s when I was in elementary school after I proved I could pass a gun safety course. It was a Marlin Model 60 semi-automatic .22LR – one of the 18 round capacity models that is hard to find these days (due to capacity restrictions). I’ve probably shot 50,000 rounds through that barrel, and who knows how many through the barrel of other guns. So please don’t pretend that I’m someone who has never fired a gun.