Another lesson in policy implementation

So I’m actually one of those people who really doesn’t mind saying, “I told you so.” I mean, sometimes, I did. Right?

And this is one of those times, albeit with an example that is even more dramatic than I could have dreamed up. Mental note to work this into next fall’s lectures on how the policy analysis/advocacy processes don’t end with the passage of legislation, the signing of an executive order, or the issuance of a judicial decree.

I recently read the book Methland. Not a good book to read before bed–does anyone else have an irrational fear of somehow, accidentally, becoming addicted to methamphetamine? Um, me neither.

So there is a whole bunch of stuff in here that’s worth talking about, primarily the author’s really profound linkage between the collapse of American agriculture, pursuant to degregulation and deunionization of the meatpacking industry and the rise of the agricultural megaconglomerate, and the move of meth into the void created in small towns across the American Midwest. A welcome change from the “people in small towns don’t have anything else to do” rationale for meth’s popularity, a glaringly inaccurate, stereotypical, and completely unhelpful attribution popularized in much of the media, and even state policy, discourse about the scourge of meth addiction.

But, this post isn’t about any of that, although I’d love to find a way to work that into the class I teach on global poverty, since we talk about the impact on the developing world of those same agricultural trends. It’s all about connections, people…

But the page that I marked in this book was towards the end, in the discussion of the Combat Meth Act. Good, strong title, bipartisan congressional support=concerted effort to provide the resources to really “combat meth”, right?

Wrong.

While the actual language of the bill was weakened somewhat after strong lobbying by the retain chain store industry (can’t get between people and their Sudafed, here), the industry understood what we, as social justice advocates, sometimes forget: it’s not even as important what’s in the legislation as what will control how the legislation is actually implemented.

So, while anti-meth advocates were upset by the exclusion of “stop buy” language in the bill (which would have stopped further purchases of the components of meth in the event of excessive buys), they still largely celebrated passage of the bill.

And then they realized that the legislation would allow states to permit pharmacies in those same chain stores to rely on handwritten logs of cold medicine sales instead of computerized systems that could communicate in real-time, help law enforcement to detect patterns, and, hopefully, actually combat meth, by reducing access to its ingredients, rather than trying to deal with the tragic human consequences later. As one of the champions of the anti-meth campaign said, “here we are, the most technologically advanced nation in history, and we have thousands of people writing hundreds of thousands of names in notebooks. We pass a law, and then we basically tell these huge companies that they’re not responsible for complying. It’s stunning” (p. 241).

And, unfortunately, totally unsurprising.

Rather than just bemoan this fairly predictable turn of events, we need to take this lesson as a challenge, and redouble our commitment to pay attention to the details–what are the consequences for failure to comply? What kinds of resources are put into monitoring? How will we build accountability in? WHO has ultimate responsibility for this accountability? To whom do we turn if we don’t feel that the policy is being followed?

We can’t allow ourselves to be beat by these back-door, hollow ‘victories’. Taking to heart this lesson of implementation, we can ensure that our hard advocacy work isn’t for naught. Take a cue from our adversaries: seal the deal.

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