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New War On Drugs

There is a new fight in the war on drugs. The battle brewing is one to make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance. Pseudoephedrine (PSE) is a precursor to methamphetamine production. Without PSE you cannot make the powerful variety of methamphetamine that addicts seek. Two states currently make PSE a controlled substance, those states are: Oregon and Mississippi. The other states currently regulate the sale and purchase of PSE based upon the 2005 Combat Meth Act that was signed into law by then President George W. Bush, and went into effect in September of 2006. Forty-one states also have additional controls on PSE short of making PSE a controlled substance. These federal and state laws put PSE behind the counters; place limits on the amount of PSE a consumer may buy, and require that the purchase be recorded on written or electronic logs. This is where the problem occurs.

PSE is the main active ingredient in the production of methamphetamine. Without this key ingredient, producing the powerful variety of methamphetamine is not possible. There are currently several states that are attempting to follow the Oregon and Mississippi lead and make PSE a controlled substance.

For example, the Kentucky Narcotics Officer Association (KNOA) wants PSE scheduled as a controlled substance requiring a doctor's prescription. According to Sgt. Stanley Salyards with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, "(Kentucky) Law enforcement alone spent $1.5 million last year cleaning up meth labs. If you add in all related criminal justice cost we spent over $20 million last year." Sgt. Salyards is also a member of KNOA and helping to lead the Kentucky charge in changing its laws to schedule PSE. KNOA reports that Kentucky is on pace to have a record number of over 1,000 clandestine methamphetamine labs seized in 2010. Salyards further adds, "Who pays for this? The tax payers of the Commonwealth." Kentucky currently uses an electronic PSE sales database in an effort to prevent diversion of PSE to meth labs. But that system has failed to reduce meth labs in Kentucky.

According to the KNOA, "Kentucky has the NPLEx (The National Precursor Log Exchange) system that monitors the purchase of PSE and blocks the sale beyond the legal limits. Most smurfers, groups of people who go to pharmacies to buy small, legally acceptable quantities of pseudoephedrine, which then are pooled to make meth, buy under the limit anyway. If they do get blocked they just use a fake ID or call a group of friends to purchase for them. Blocking the sale of PSE does not prevent meth labs or an illegal sale of PSE." The KNOA goes on to say, "We do not want to track PSE sales, we want to control PSE and significantly reduce meth labs." There are some interesting statistics as well:

  • In 2009, Kentucky had 716 methamphetamine labs reported.
  • Only 54 of those 716 were identified by electronic tracking.
  • Kentucky State Police seized 199 methamphetamine labs.
  • Two of those 199 were identified by electronic tracking.
  • Lake Cumberland Drug Task Force seized 74 methamphetamine labs.
  • Only one of those 74 was identified by electronic tracking.
  • Operations UNITE Drug Task Force seized 55 methamphetamine labs.
  • Seven of those 55 were identified by electronic tracking.

In 2005, the State of Oregon passed sweeping legislation restricting PSE. Oregon requires a prescription from a doctor. The legislation went into law July 1, 2006. By Oregon taking the approach of controlling PSE, they eliminated the smurfing problem as well as nearly their entire methamphetamine lab problem. There were some issues regarding who would be affected if PSE was controlled. Some of those concerns were: Public outcry, inconvenience to consumer, increased work load on pharmacists, increased work load on doctors and emergency rooms, Medicaid costs, impact on the poor, and the cost of PSE. Those issues were never realized.

After the law went into effect, there was no public outcry, most consumers had already switched to over the counter alternatives, the increased workload on pharmacists didn't occur, the increased workload on doctors and emergency rooms never occurred, Medicaid costs only slightly increased with a statewide impact was less than $8,000 per year, the effect on the poor, according to the Director of Northwest Human Services which runs free clinics and homeless shelters in Salem, Oregon, has not heard a word from their patients or providers, and the cost of PSE in Oregon is actually less than in some of its neighboring states. The most stunning number, in 2005 when the law was passed in Oregon, the methamphetamine lab production was at 189 for the year. It was down significantly from 2004. After the law went into effect in 2006, the methamphetamine lab production went to 55. In 2010, Oregon seized only 12 methamphetamine labs. Contrast that to over 1,000 methamphetamine labs in Kentucky.

In 2010, Mississippi followed Oregon's lead and returned PSE to a prescription drug, as it was prior to 1976. The Mississippi legislation went into effect on July 1, 2010, and that state has already seen the same stunning successful results experienced in Oregon, with a nearly 70 percent drop in meth lab incidents in just six short months. Kentucky has just filed legislation in the General Assembly to make PSE prescription only. Thomas Loving, Executive Director of KNOA stated, "We look forward to similar results with the passage of HB 15 and/or SB 45 filed in the Kentucky General Assembly."

According to a 2009 report issued by National Methamphetamine and Pharmaceuticals Initiative (NMPI), The NMPI Advisory Board supports "Prescription Only" over the use of tracking databases as the only effective means to prevent illicit methamphetamine labs in the United States.

  • "Prescription Only" is the only proven tool that keeps legitimate consumer access while preventing methamphetamine labs.
  • "Prescription Only" addresses "smurfer sophistication" at all levels in all states.
  • "Prescription Only" addresses precursor demand no matter what size methamphetamine labs are being supplied, in the same state or another state.

Now the battle to make PSE prescription only is between law enforcement and the pharmaceutical lobbyists. Sgt. Salyards stated, "Scheduling would only affect 15 over the counter products and leave 100s on the shelf not scheduled; these 15 products bring the industry $600-$800 million a year in sales. Note: electronic tracking companies are paid per sales transaction they track; do you think they want to see scheduling?" He also adds, "We have tried putting PSE behind the counter, which worked for a while until meth makers figured out how to get around the system with smurfing. Kentucky has tried electronic tracking; it does not reduce methamphetamine labs. It is time to try a real solution for the meth lab problem, scheduling."

As law enforcement officers, this is an utmost important issue and one that requires our attention into the New Year. I challenge all state and federal legislators across the United States to seriously look at this issue. We need these laws to protect our first responders, the public, and children trapped in this cycle of violence. Other methods have been approached and those seem to work temporarily. It's apparent with the data provided by Oregon and Mississippi that returning PSE to a prescription only drug can significantly reduce methamphetamine lab production. Mexico has banned PSE entirely. It's time for state and federal legislators to listen to the front line men and women in this battle to fight methamphetamine production, and not the pharmaceutical lobbyists.