Lies, statistics and meth labs

By Scott Mooneyham | Dec 13, 2012

RALEIGH -- When it comes to statistics, Mark Twain's famous quote equating them to lies is a lot like statistics themselves.

The problem with using statistics -- at least when they are accurate -- is not that they are lies. Rather, it is that those who cite them can pick and choose the ones that bolster their argument.

So statistics, like Twain's quote, can tell only half the story.

Some state legislators and state officials recently did a little selective choosing of statistics themselves.

The subject was methamphetamine labs and the cold medicine, pseudoephedrine, that is used to cook up the illegal drug.

Information presented to a legislative study committee showed that Oregon and Mississippi, two states that adopted laws requiring that pseudophedrine be sold by prescription, have seen dramatic drops in "meth lab incidents."

Those "incidents" are recorded by law enforcement anytime that they find a meth lab or remnants of a meth lab, including plastic soda bottles used to cook the stuff and tossed onto roadsides.

According to the numbers, the incidents in Oregon dropped from 50 in 2006, when its prescription-only law took effect, to only a handful today. In Mississippi, the incidents dropped from about 700 in 2010 to around 250 in 2011.

Other than law enforcement reviews, there doesn't appear to have been a hard look at the numbers in Mississippi.

That is not the case in Oregon.

Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market advocacy think tank similar to this state's John Locke Foundation, commissioned its own study this year looking at the Oregon law.

The study pointed out that Oregon's dramatic drop in meth lab incidents had actually begun two years before the prescription-only law was passed. In 2004, there had been more than 400 meth lab incidents, compared to 50 in year that the law went into effect.

The study also found that Oregon's neighbors, Washington and California, experienced similar drops. And it reported that meth lab incidents fell nationwide during that two-year period by 55 percent.

The authors speculate that the decrease in western states is associated with increased law enforcement and methamphetamine production moving outside of the United States (think Mexican drug cartels).

They do acknowledge that, outside of western states, these meth lab incidents began rising again after 2006.

Still, the study concludes that "little distinguishes Oregon from neighboring states which did not adopt Rx-only laws for pseudophedrine."

I suppose it is possible that the Cascade study authors selectively chose some of their statistics too.

So perhaps the discussion ought to focus on something other than statistics.

Here is a non-statistical, undeniable fact: If North Carolina, like Oregon and Mississippi, requires a prescription to get an effective cold medicine, more North Carolinians will spend more money going to doctors and paying pharmacists to fill prescriptions.

Republican legislators, now in charge at the General Assembly, have said that they favor cost-benefit analyses when new regulations are put into effect.

OK. We law-abiding cold sufferers are awaiting your cost-benefit analysis.