In some of the prisons in Rep. Souder's congressional district, 80 percent of the inmates are meth addicts. He led efforts to create the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which mandates that pseudoephedrine be put under lock and key in stores nationwide and that buyers register at the store counter. Here, he talks about meth's impact on communities, the Bush administration's inadequate response to the epidemic, and the national strategy that is needed. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 2, 2005.
Tell me about the impact that crystal meth has had on your constituents.
In my district, like most of the country, it started as a rural problem, a few isolated cases. You didn't think you had as much of a problem. It was kind of an aggravation of law enforcement. Then they started to see house trailers catching on fire, firemen going in and wondering whether it was going to explode and blow them all up, whether there were children involved. Pretty soon it starts to get into the child custody system as the problem starts to spread. You see more and more pollution questions as the problem spread -- particularly in one county, Noble County, which has had the most labs in Indiana. It's a rural and small town, and [meth] has overwhelmed their police force.
Their drug task force will go out there, the officers will sit there, wait for the state police to come in, seal the site. Then they'll wait for the DEA-contracted people to come in and clean it up. So their local police guys are tied up there, and now they're out of overtime hours. They don't know how to pay for their police department. They're only dealing in many of these cases with two or three [offenders], so it means lots of bigger drug busts or other types of crime are going unprotected because these few people have tied up the system.
Then they hit the treatment system. The treatment system has been only moderately effective. Since this problem has been mostly in rural areas, at least the mom-and-pop-type labs, those treatment centers have the least money, the least training, the most underfunded staff, and are the least able to execute the complicated treatment strategies you need. Thus, a typical thing would be that somebody goes into treatment, and as soon as they're done with treatment, they're back into the problem again. We have that [problem] in [treating] drugs in general, and that seems to be even more the case [with meth].
… I just heard recently of a particular case where the person got picked up three times for [operating meth] labs and still hadn't been processed for his first prosecution. It has just overwhelmed local law enforcement and treatment providers. And it has a different impact than any other kind of drug because of this multiplicity of effect: of endangerment to fire departments, endangerment to the policemen, endangerment to children. The fires associated with it, the environmental cleanup associated with it, the length of time at the site -- all those things complicate it more than other narcotics.
I was just amazed by the number of people that we're dealing with here, that county jail systems are overwhelmed, and foster care systems. Can you talk about the lack of resources for treating this problem?
Where meth has hit, whether it's crystal meth or mom-and-pop-lab meth, it overwhelms the entire judicial system. In St. Paul, Minn., in Ramsey County, which is an urban area, from a standing start to nine months later, 80 percent of the kids in child custody were there because of meth. In a rural area, as much as 80 to 90 percent of the cases, in some cases 100 percent, are meth-related.
… And whether it's crystal meth or mom-and-pop meth, both types of meth are very addictive. So we see it in the rural areas, where … it takes up 80 to 100 percent of their jail space, because these criminals are more likely to be violent, more likely to endanger other people, more likely to commit multiple crimes. They can't just release them like they can others. So even if there are other criminals, they have to concentrate on the meth criminals. …
The astounding thing about this is you can have one county where you have 80 percent of the kids in child custody [because of] meth, 100 percent of the people in jail because of meth, and in the county next it would be 10 percent. It is one of the unusual phenomena of this drug.
And so given that places like St. Paul or Indiana or out West have had such serious problems, why do you think it took so long for the East Coast establishment to take the meth problem seriously?
One reason that the Washington establishment and our narcotics establishment has been slow to respond to meth is that it started in isolated, rural areas, usually around where there are national forests or open lands where people can hide, where there's not as much patrolling, where you don't have as much local police presence. It only has in the last six months to a year started to hit cities the size of Omaha or Portland or St. Paul.
A second thing is, particularly with mom-and-pop labs, which are what endanger local police [and] children the most -- [they] don't work through the normal criminal organizations, and our narcotics efforts are set up to deal with large trafficking organizations, so they're better at tackling crystal meth. Not that they're great on crystal meth, but they're better on crystal meth than they are on the mom-and-pop labs. It's a totally different type of phenomenon.
And do you think that there is some element of regionalism, that Washington only cares about what's going on in Washington?
That is tough speculation. … I believe that it's more of a rural/urban phenomenon than a regional phenomenon. The rural areas of America do not have as many congressmen in the House as the urban areas. Even in a state like California, meth has been in the more rural areas, and the numbers aren't as great in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where they don't seem to have a meth problem.
While on the surface it looks like it's just West versus East or rural versus urban, it's complex. Even in a home state like mine, Indianapolis has no meth problem. Six of the nine [congressional] districts are mostly related to the city of Indianapolis, so that leaves three congressmen out of the nine in Indiana who have a meth problem. Of those three congressional districts, like mine, the biggest city is Fort Wayne, Ind., and [it] has one lab. The rural areas in my district, which represent less than 30 percent of my district, have a huge meth problem. So even in districts where there's a meth problem, it isn't in your population center, so it's been harder to get the political establishment to focus, because even in my district, which is one of the hardest hit meth districts, meth isn't the number one problem in the biggest urban area. So it has been an unusual challenge to try to get the attention of public policy-makers, because the majority of their voters, even in a meth-hit district, aren't affected by meth.
Now, as the problem has moved, and as it moves to places like Omaha, St. Paul and Portland, you start to see more and more congressmen start to get the noise up. Plus, the Senate starts to respond because they're dealing with it statewide. And that's moving West to East, because it hasn't hit the East yet, which still has the biggest chunk of the population. It hasn't quite crossed the threshold, but with all the media coverage, with all the members of Congress in the outer areas starting to [feel the] squeeze, we're starting to see some response. I think that partly explains why it's been so long in coming.
My first frustration is that they don't seem to understand that the war on narcotics changes from year to year. … I believe when you're fighting illegal narcotics that the target changes during different periods and that if you stay on the same theme year after year, the people wear out and you start to get an immunity to the message. … When you have an issue like meth, where everybody can see that the person starts by thinking that they're going to be able to be more productive at work, it's easy to convince people [of the dangers of the drug]. So why wouldn't we shift our tactics in prevention, for example, to try and educate people on that? Then if it moves to OxyContin two years from now, move to OxyContin and convince people on that.
So part of [the problem is], where has our prevention been? Why can't you see the advantage overall in the narcotics movement to say, "Look, meth is a hot drug of choice right now. It's destructive. We can sell this message. Don't just stick in what you were doing two years ago"?
Secondly, my biggest argument with the administration is that [this] new drug came up in a different way than the traditional systems. It's devastating to local law enforcement, local judicial systems, local treatment systems. When you see a new drug come through with a new kind of devastation, why don't you come up with a new strategy? It's like in war: We [don't] still think people are going to line up and fight us like at the battle of Waterloo and not do insurgencies. Why don't we adjust our strategies? In narcotics you have to have flexible strategies when new challenges come up, and there's been a refusal out of the drug czar's office in particular to grant that it's a threat, and it's a threat that requires a different type of strategy.
What is your assessment of what their approach has been, what their public statements have been?
… I believe the office of the drug czar has had a laughable position that meth is only a minor problem, that it's not an epidemic and it only represents eight percent of drug use in America. I believe the number is higher. I believe the impact is higher. I believe it's catastrophic in regional areas and that the statistical methods that they're using, focusing on youth, focusing on traditional busts, are wrong. And when you combine this together, it's led them to miss what is probably the biggest drug epidemic in the last couple years, because their whole models and constructs are wrong.
So over the last 20 years, the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied at every turn to prevent regulation, to open loopholes, to keep ephedrine and pseudoephedrine on the market. What's been your experience of that kind of lobbying in Congress?
My subcommittee has been tracking this issue of regulation of pseudoephedrine since even before the first state law was put into effect. ... That said, I've been frustrated that the pharmaceutical industry has not shown much willingness to work with us, and at this point I have moved to say, "Look, we're going to go behind the counter." …
Starting with the state of Oklahoma, the battle over regulation of pseudoephedrine has been a state-by-state battle. Some states have been able to pass a very strict control law for pharmacies to put [products containing psuedoephedrine] behind the counter. In other states, it's been defeated. … So we have a mixed bag at the state level.
What is clear is [that meth] can't be regulated effectively without a national law. In the state of Indiana, where they put it behind the counter, [users] now just go over to Ohio and Michigan, so we clearly need a national law. The pharmaceutical companies have been resisting that, and the strategies for how they resist it vary. Sometimes they use the grocery stores as a front; sometimes they use the divisions in law enforcement; sometimes they'll use different types of arguments. But clearly they have held up our ability to move the bill.
And so what's your opinion of how the pharmaceutical industry has conducted itself through this debate?
With the invisible hand of the pharmaceutical companies, it's hard to say that the pharmaceutical companies as a whole are doing such-and-such. What we have is different pieces and different types of problems. … But the bottom line is … [that] there are very few [pseudoephedrine-]manufacturing companies in the entire world, so why don't we get accurate data out of them?
The second thing is, clearly the Mexican border is where most of the pseudoephedrine is pouring in through. We have a flood of pseudoephedrine and super lab meth coming through Mexico. It has been very difficult to agree on how to do border strategies.
Then, once it gets into the United States, the question of what goes behind the counter, of whether it goes in a pharmacy or whether it's regulated at all, has varied by the type of company and their willingness to work with us. So you have big retail operations like Wal-Mart, Target being willing to put in certain controls, but they have management systems that can do that. A little grocery store in a small rural town does not have the type of systems that Wal-Mart and Target have, and they are in danger of being run out.
So the pharmaceutical companies will often use the divisions between the small and big retailers, between the different members of Congress. … That's why the invisible hand of the pharmaceutical companies is hard to figure out in this. We know they're there, but they haven't directly led the fight against regulation.
One thing that's happening is now that companies are losing shelf spaces because their products with pseudoephedrine must be placed behind the counter. They are bringing out products with phenylephrine, [which, unlike pseudoephedrine, cannot be turned into crystal meth]. But phenylephrine has been around for about 50 years. Why do you think it took so long?
As I understand it, the alternative products are not as effective in treating pain or symptoms as the products that had the pseudoephedrine in them, and it isn't clear whether something can come to market that will replace that. But the plain truth of the matter is that in order to tackle the meth problem, at least in the short term, we are probably going to have some reduction in some quality of impact of some products. The question is, are we better off as a nation to have a little bit less effective headache medicine or cold medicine in order to get rid of meth?
But why has it taken so long to introduce these products?
I believe in America we've reached a tipping point. If it [were] just in rural Nebraska, it would be a fair political debate to say, "Should we restrict a grocery store in New York City from having the most effective headache product in their choices from 120 choices to 20?" But if the problem moves beyond just Nebraska -- and it's now in 40 states, quickly heading to 50 states, and it's devastating costs to law enforcement, to treatment, to environmental impact -- so you say, "OK, the marginal change here in headache medicine is worth it."
Some say the pharmaceutical industry has had to be dragged kicking and screaming here.
I believe that any industry wants to maximize the profits of a previous product rather than having to put new research into a product that they hope can replace the restricted one, so it's not unnatural for any industry to resist change. But our challenge as public policy-makers is to say, "When is that change necessary?" and to force them to change their products. They can come up with other alternatives. Eventually they'll come up with other alternatives that may even be better. It's just that every company's goal is to maximize their profits, which is a fine goal as a society, but that's why we have public policy lawmakers, to try to say, "OK, this is a balance. There's a tipping point here. You've got to change."
For the last 20 years, Mexico has become the primary conduit of illegal narcotics in the United States. [Drugs] from the Andean region -- the heroin, the cocaine -- come up through Mexico. And now Mexico itself is starting to provide much of the heroin and the marijuana that comes through the border. … It is a more or less open border in many parts of the United States, … so we have a general border problem. So as we crack down in California and other places on the super labs, they're going to move to Mexico.
… So we simultaneously have to have a border control strategy here. That basically means we have to have some kind of reasonable immigration strategy in this country, or we'll never control our borders. And so one issue will plunge us right into one of the most controversial issues in America -- immigration -- and how do we deal with the fact that we have 12 to 15 million people working in America who we don't acknowledge are here?
And another angle of this problem is that Mexican pharmacies are importing vastly more pseudoephedrine than is their legitimate need for cold medicine. … We know that Mexico is importing far more pseudoephedrine than they need, probably 50 percent more than they need -- tons more than they need -- and that's headed for the United States, either processed through super labs or in raw form to be then turned into methamphetamine in the United States. We have to get control of the Southwest border, where it's pouring through Mexico.
I don't know if you know that there's an international regime for codeine, and that every country on Earth has a quota over how much codeine they can import. They can import that much and no more. Don't we need to somehow come together to solve this problem internationally and come up with a plan, as they did with codeine?
It would be ideal if we could come together internationally and come up with a plan. … I believe we should have some sort of a buy-what-you-use type of program around the world. But the fact is that rogue nations aren't going to follow it anyway. … Mexico has a clear choice here: … Are they going to be a responsible member of the world, or are they going to be a rogue nation?
And lastly, what about this whole business [that] there are only a few factories that make this stuff? Why can't we get a handle on who these factories are selling it to?
Almost every aspect of trying to get a coordinated strategy on meth has been incredibly frustrating, but this seems like an elementary building block. …
What I realize is, the forces at international politics are tougher even than local law enforcement. It's like, we don't want to hurt our trade with India; we don't want to hurt our trade with China. We have all these other big issues to deal with. Hey, I understand that. I'm a member of Congress. … But look, if these countries want to be responsible, international countries, all we want is basic data, basic control.
And, our State Department doesn't want to cooperate. I've talked to [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice about this, as have other members, and we need a more aggressive policy out of our State Department to put the pressure on China and India and say, "Regulate this stuff. Track it. Give us the data -- not only the raw stuff, but the pills. Report where it's going, who your shipping companies are, because this is devastating the families and children of people all across America and across the world."
There are basically nine major factories in the whole world that make the key ingredient in meth. It would seem that the logical way to tackle this would be to go there, because once it gets out of there and it moves to Mexico, or it moves to other places around the world, [it's] about impossible to control. Then it comes out of the Southwest border, and it goes into every state. It goes into little towns, into big cities, and you lose it. So why wouldn't we focus the traffic to see where it's coming out of there, to try to regulate it there, to watch it there, to get counts there, so that we can see where it's moving in the shipping lanes, then watch where it's moving around the world? …
The way we've dealt with cocaine is to say, look, it grows in the Andean region, and that's the number one source, so let's try to get to the cocaine there. If we fail there, let's try to interdict it. If we fail there, let's try to get it at the border. If we fail there, let's try to get it at the cities. But we understand that if we can get it when it's in the ground in Colombia and Peru, then it's easier than once it gets into the United States. Why not methamphetamine? If the key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, and there's only nine plants in the world, and most of those are in India and China, why wouldn't you focus there and have the same strategy that we employ in every other narcotic in the world, like we do with heroin in Afghanistan? What's our first strategy? We go to the ground. We try to get it there. Then we try to interdict it as it's moving out of the ground, because if you wait to fight heroin till it's in process and somebody's using it, all you're doing is picking up users. What you have to do is get back to the source and have multiple cracks at this. It's the only way you can reduce a drug on the street. …