Our Own Gary Ashenfelter – Pseudoephedrine

Oregon’s tough anti-meth measures eyed as model for Indiana
By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — As Indiana heads for what could be another record year for meth-lab busts, law enforcement officers are gearing up for a tough legislative battle with big-chain retailers over the fate of a common cold remedy.

The next legislative session doesn’t start until January. But supporters of a law that would require a doctor’s prescription for products containing pseudoephedrine are lining up testimony and gathering research to make their case to lawmakers this summer.

Their argument: Indiana’s past attempts to limit the sale of the key ingredient used by kitchen-sink chemists to make a dangerously addictive illegal drug have been ineffective and wasted millions in taxpayer dollars.

“The problem for law enforcement in Indiana is that instead of giving us mousetraps to catch the mice, our legislators have given us cheese and told us to chase the mice around with it,” said Gary Ashenfelter, a spokesman for the Indiana Drug Enforcement Association. “You’ve got to wonder, what the hell are we doing?”

The association – a voluntary organization of federal, state and local drug investigators – wants legislation like that passed in Oregon five years ago that returned pseudoephedrine to its pre-1976 status as a prescription-only medicine.

Oregon has seen a dramatic decrease in meth labs since. Mississippi’s Republican governor signed a similar bill in February.

Such a law is strongly opposed by the lobbying arms of pharmaceutical companies and retailers that make and sell the non-prescription cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine. They fear a drop in sales, estimated to be $500 million a year.

Grant Monahan of the Indiana Retail Council says his members would oppose a law “that would add to customer inconvenience and add to health care costs.”

But supporters say a little extra cost and inconvenience is worth it, given the high toll the drug takes on addicts, their families and the communities in which they live.

While the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police is withholding formal support of a bill, waiting to see what the language would look like, the organization supports actions that would make it tougher to gain access to ingredients that go into making meth.

“It’s an incredibly nasty drug,” said Michael Ward, executive director of the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police. “The damage it does physically, economically, emotionally is just staggering.”

The Oregon law has had impact. The number of meth labs seized in the state has dropped from 472 in 2004, a year before the law passed, to 10 in 2009, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Indiana, meanwhile, has seen a surge in meth labs in the four years following the passage of a state law that limits and tracks the amount of pseudoephedrine purchased. DEA reported 1,343 meth labs in Indiana in 2009, significantly up from the 737 meth labs seized in 2006.

In the first five months of 2010, there were 580 meth labs seized in Indiana.

The strongest advocates of a law that would return pseudoephedrine to its prescription-only status are drug investigators and county prosecutors whose caseload is consumed by meth-related crimes. They’re working on gathering allies to argue their case in front of a legislative study commission scheduled to meet later this summer.

In Oregon, the law was passed with the support of the state’s medical association and the state’s pharmacy association.

Among the studies they expect to cite is a national report, released last year by the Rand Corporation, that puts total economic cost of methamphetamine abuse – ranging from enforcement to foster care for the children of meth addicts – at $23.4 billion annually for the nation. Indiana’s share is estimated at $100 million.

But advocates for the law also expect pushback from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a national organization that represents pharmaceutical makers. The association has launched an aggressive campaign to thwart similar efforts in other states.

Both the CHPA and the Indiana Retailers Association favor an electronic tracking system that would stop the sale of pseudoephedrine to a customer who has already reached his or her legal limit.

Kentucky implemented such a system in 2007 that monitors pseudoephedrine sales electronically on a statewide basis.

Indiana lawmakers will likely hear about those results, too. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association came out strongly in favor of making pseudoephrine a prescription-only drug. The state’s electronic tracking system, known as MethCheck, blocked 18,000 sales of pseudoephredrine.

But the number of meth labs continued to increase, according to DEA numbers, from 294 in 2007 – a year before MethCheck into effect – to 716 in 2009.

“Oregon’s law is living, breathing proof that it works,” Ashenfelter said. “So it’s a little more inconvenient to get pseudoephedrine you have a cold? It’s not a like a drug that cures cancer.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com