War on Meth Epidemic Targets Cold Medicines
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
Chefs can't bake a cake without flour and drug addicts can't "cook" methamphetamine without ephedrine, a key ingredient in the highly addictive, illegal street drug that's commonly called meth, "crank," "ice" or "poor man's cocaine."
That's why some state officials are trying to make it harder for meth abusers and producers to get their hands on large quantities of ephedrine, which easily can be extracted from over-the-counter cold tablets, such as Sudafed.
Although 80 percent of methamphetamine on the market is produced in "superlabs" in California and Mexico, the number of small "mom-and-pop" labs has grown exponentially in the United States over the past decade, particularly in rural areas. The number of meth labs seized by federal authorities jumped to 13,092 in 2001 from 327 in 1995, according to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
"(Meth) is so easy to make and it's so profitable that it's just kind of spread like wildfire," said Pilar Kraman, a research analyst at the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky.
Methamphetamine can be injected, snorted, smoked or swallowed and can cost between $350 and $2,200 per ounce, according to ONDCP. A powerful stimulant, meth produces an intense high and can cause heart problems, increased blood pressure, hypothermia, convulsions and even death.
Oklahoma recently enacted the country's toughest law targeting cold medicine. The law, which Gov. Brad Henry (D) signed April 7, requires that tablets containing the active ingredient pseudoephedrine, from which ephedrine can be derived, be sold only by pharmacists. That means many cold pills no longer will be available at grocery stores, gas stations or convenience stores. The law excludes cold medicines in the form of gel caps or liquids because they can't be used to make meth. The bill also requires shoppers to show a photo ID and to sign a registry showing where and how much they bought.
"We think that when other states see how it works they're going to follow suit," said Kevin Ward, the governor's cabinet secretary on safety and security.
Drug industry officials are critical of the law, contending that it won't be effective and will limit the availability of over-the-counter medications for those who need them for coughs and colds.
"Restrictions on everyday access to safe and effective medicine that many people use for legitimate use will yield more frustration from consumers," said Elizabeth Assey, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Health Products Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors of non-prescription drugs. "Moving these products behind the pharmacy (counter) is really not going to get at the root of the problem."
Pharmacists in Oklahoma also have concerns that the law will create more work for them, make their stores the target of burglaries or attract "undesirable" clientele, said Bryan Potter, executive director of the Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy. "Until you try something, you don't know whether it's going to work or not. We just hope that it works and that nobody gets hurt," Potter told Stateline.org.
At least 28 states limit access to meth ingredients, which also include certain chemicals in fertilizers and household products, such as Drano. At least 10 of those states, including California and Missouri, have placed limits on how many packages or grams of pseudoephedrine a person can possess or purchase at a time.
Missouri enacted restrictions in 2003 that are similar to but don't go as far as Oklahoma's law. Missouri requires retailers to keep cold medications with pseudoephedrine behind or within 10 feet of cash registers and in unobstructed view.
Because the law only has been on the books a short time, law enforcement officials say it's too early to tell what impact it's having. Tim Anderson, assistant attorney general, told Stateline.org that the Show Me state has seen an increase in abusers crossing state lines to buy meth ingredients more easily and riding a circuit from store to store to avoid regulations.
"As we crack down on people who buy it, they'll go across to Iowa or Illinois," he said. Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D) is convening a statewide summit on methamphetamine with law enforcement and state agency officials April 25 28.
"Limiting access to ingredients is one thing states can do, but alone it's not going to be the most effective because there are so many ways to get around it," CSG's Kraman said.
In Iowa, a bill is on Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack's desk that would limit to two the number of packs of cold medicine a person can buy at one time when pseudoephedrine is the only active ingredient.
In the same vein, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan proposed a plan March 30 to "pull out the roots" of meth. Madigan wants to require adult-strength cold tablets with that ingredient to be sold in special "blister packs" and include no more than 3 grams of total ingredient. Her proposal also would prohibit store clerks from selling the product if they have reason to believe the buyer will use it to make meth.
"This is unique because it is a way for us to not only deal with (meth) once it's already made, but hopefully prevent it from being made at all," said state Rep. John Bradley (D), who's sponsoring the bill in the House and who represents one of Illinois' southernmost districts where meth abuse is the top-cited concern of his constituents.
States also are using other strategies to combat meth abuse and production, such as ramping up criminal penalties and educating the public. For example:
- Montana passed a law in 2003 that makes operating a meth lab near a child or within 500 feet of a residence, business, church or school punishable by up to 50 years in prison or a maximum fine of $50,000.
- Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah and Washington have changed their child abuse definitions to include manufacturing controlled substances in the presence of kids, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
- Wyoming launched an intensive public awareness campaign about meth problems and in 1998 began allocating several million dollars to methamphetamine treatment and prevention programs.
- Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Oklahoma make meth lab operators liable for clean-up costs, because producing one pound of meth can create 5 pounds of toxic waste.
- And in Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) signed an executive order April 7 to create a task force to study meth abuse and report findings by Sept. 1, said Lydia Lenker, the governor's press secretary.