WE CAN'T understand why millions of Americans want to blank out their brains with dope. From crack cocaine to heroin to OxyContin to crystal meth, it's a billion-dollar criminal business. Almost daily, it seems, West Virginia police bust another secret meth lab and haul the chemical-cookers to jail.
Now, Oregon and Mississippi have mostly wiped out meth labs through a simple law change: requiring prescriptions for cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine. Oregon's new law was written chiefly by district attorney Rob Bovett. In a recent commentary, he wrote:
"The latest bad news from the world of methamphetamine is that makers of the drug have perfected a one-pot recipe that enables them to manufacture their highly addictive product while on the move, often in their car. The materials they need - a two-liter soda bottle, a few cold pills and some household chemicals - are easily obtained and easily discarded, often in a trash bag dumped along the highway."
Bovett said America's meth madness flared after 1976, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine nasal decongestant to be sold over the counter, "inadvertently letting the genie out of the bottle. Afterward, the meth epidemic spread across the nation, leaving destroyed lives and families in its wake."
Sales of those decongestants soared to nearly $600 million a year, far more than required by snifflers. Most of the purchases were by illegal meth lab operators. Bovett continued:
"In 2006, Congress required pseudoephedrine products to be moved behind the counter, set daily and monthly limits on the amount that can be sold to any one customer, and required retailers to keep a log of sales. But meth users quickly learned to evade these controls by making purchases in several different stores - a practice known as 'smurfing.'"
Oregon and Mississippi virtually halted meth labs by returning pseudoephedrine to prescription status. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has drafted a bill to impose the same reform nationwide.
Trying to fend off this nationwide control, the pharmaceutical industry is lobbying Congress to require electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine sales. But Bovett says such a plan doesn't work. "In Kentucky, an electronic tracking law that went into effect in 2008 has had no effect on the number of meth labs there." The only cure, he says, is a prescription requirement.
When West Virginia's Legislature returns in January, lawmakers should study the Oregon-Mississippi crackdown, to see whether it could halt the ugly damage from methamphetamine in the Mountain State.