New research shows methamphetamine is most potent near the border and that laws limiting the purchase of meth-making chemicals are working.

Those are among the findings of James Cunningham, a social epidemiologist and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Arizona. He and his research partners in Mexico are part of a new push to use data to evaluate the drug war.

"The government is spending billions, and we really don't know what the outcomes are," Cunningham said.

Two of his studies are published today in Addiction, a scientific journal for substance-abuse research.


Cunningham set out to see how drugs move once they get into the United States, usually from across the border.

He used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a federal database of facts about drugs seized across the U.S. from 1990 to 2004.

Then he looked at the purity of the seized drugs and measured their distance from border cities.

The closer to the border, the more pure the meth is, he found.

The more pure the drug, the higher the health risks and the sooner people become dependent on the drug, Cunningham said.

The data can serve as a baseline, showing the norms for the purity of drugs across the nation, so researchers and law enforcement can watch for signs of market changes.

"It's well-known that Arizona is a distribution hub," said Tucson Police Department Sgt. Don Bertsch, who leads the detective squad at the Counter Narcotics Alliance.

"Drug-trafficking organizations from Mexico have superlabs, and they produce extremely high-quality and significant quantities of meth and smuggle it across the border," Bertsch said.


Laws that limit consumer access to pseudoephedrine - a medicine used legally to relieve nasal congestion and also used to make meth - are working, Cunningham found.

In Arizona, Cunningham saw a steep drop in meth-related hospital admissions after a 2005 law that regulates the purchase of pseudoephedrine took effect.

Law enforcement has seen a change, too.

"Those laws have been successful, and we have less of the small, local labs" that produce low-quality meth in dangerous settings, Bertsch said.

When Mexico changed its policy to control imports of pseudoephedrine in 2005, it saw a "dramatic" 12 percent drop in the demand for voluntary admissions for methamphetamine dependence, Cunningham said.

But after that, the number started rising again. Then in 2007, Mexico closed a commercial chemical company suspected of illicitly importing more than 60 tons of pseudoephedrine, and meth-treatment admissions fell again - this time by 56 percent.

In 2008, Mexico banned all imports of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, but researchers are still examining the impact.

Cunningham said he hopes the research will help to guide future drug-war policies and spending.

He said the precursor policy is similar to controls on alcohol sales or taxes on cigarettes.

"This policy doesn't involve arresting people, or seizures," he said. "It involves agreements between commercial companies and governments."

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at or 807-8012.