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Part 2: Are we losing the War on Meth?

The fixation on the number of meth labs is unreasoned policy

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Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 11:24 am | Updated: 5:18 pm, Thu Jan 10, 2013.

(Part I of this story found here)

SULLIVAN – Before they voted for it, they voted against it. In the span of one year, four members of the Sullivan City Council decided that the war on meth was more important than the voting desires of constituents and/or the right to purchase common over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications without the expense or hassle of obtaining a physician’s prescription.

In December of 2009, Aldermen Dennis Watz and Jarrett Dace failed in their attempt to pass Dace’s city ordinance requiring a prescription to obtain pseudoephedrine-based drugs, such as Sudafed. Aldermen Mike Ryan Jr., Michael Lohden, Tom Leasor, and Paul McCulloch voted against the bill, stating (among other things) that constituents “overwhelmingly” opposed the bill and that the restrictions were too burdensome on local citizens. The bill’s defeat was a huge blow to Jason Grellner – a narcotics detective and meth-lab expert – because Grellner is convinced that the path to meth’s demise is through shutting down the meth labs.

Aldermen Leasor and Lohden voted against the bill, despite the fact that both are Franklin County Sheriff deputies. Leasor said he could see voting for it, but his constituents were mostly against it. Others voiced concerns about the bill being too restrictive, or causing hardships on the citizens. Without a doubt, everyone agreed, there’s a problem with meth.

Missouri, and specifically eastern Missouri, generally leads the U.S. in meth lab seizures. The key ingredient in OTC cold/allergy meds is pseudoephedrine, the same ingredient used to cook meth. Criminals buy a lot of Sudafed-type products, which is used to produce meth. Many of the labs catch fire, contaminate properties, and generally destroy everything and everyone within reach.

After the City Council of December 2009 defeated the prescription-only bill, Grellner continued to work the Council. One year later, his efforts paid off. The Dec. 7, 2010 vote was 6-0 in favor of the bill. But this time, not much of a mention about constituents or hardships.  It was all about numbers, all about the sheer number of sales of legal OTC cold/allergy meds. Too many boxes of allergy meds being sold at the local Wal-Mart. Leasor, a deputy, talked about the horrors of meth labs and what they do to people and families. As a journalist, I’ve seen it and agree with Leasor (and others) that meth is ripping apart many homes across the region.

Today, two years after that vote, business owners and data-tracking companies say that the City of Sullivan, Franklin County, and the State of Missouri have reduced the sales of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine-based medicines. How much of that reduction can be attributed to criminals going elsewhere is an unknown. According to one local pharmacist, some citizens in the prescription-only communities are going without their usual OTC medicine because of costs and the sheer hassle of obtaining the medicine. Some, like the meth cookers, are simply spending their money in communities without the ordinances.

Interestingly, local and state police data indicates that there are more meth labs than last year or the previous year. According to Missouri State Highway Patrol data, meth-lab seizures are up in the counties that have prescription-only ordinances – including Franklin County.

Why is the number of meth labs increasing, despite the fact that dozens of communities have implemented prescription-only laws? Leasor, now the mayor in Sullivan, readily admits that the number of labs in Sullivan is going up, but notes the labs are much smaller. There’s a simple reason that the number of labs is not going down.

“Restricting OTC medication will not make much of an impact on meth use,” says Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke.  Again: Will not make much of an impact on meth use. The basic argument against prescription-only laws is that the laws do not attack the basic problem – people using meth. The Missouri Medical Association, Missouri Pharmacy Association, Missouri Retailers Association, and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association have all opposed prescription-only laws for pseudoephedrine-based OTC products.

In a recent e-mail to the Sullivan Journal, Mayor Leasor points out the plethora of problems caused by meth labs. Local communities – such as Sullivan – witness horrible tragedies caused by meth; and often suffer the burden of cleaning up the toxic mess left behind. While many of the large labs have been curtailed – perhaps because of pseudoephedrine supply problems – the new mobile shake-n-bake labs are appearing in motel rooms, homes, automobiles, storage units, and in the woods. While more of these labs are accounting for the rise in lab numbers, says Leasor, the smaller labs also pose less risk.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the large domestic labs may be dwindling. But, the feds say, it could be because the supply of meth is surging. Mexican gangs are flooding eastern Missouri with cheap, powerful meth – creating new users, and new problems. Many of these “new” users get hooked, and then turn to producing their own supply with a simple two-liter soda bottle – the shake-n-bake method. These labs also blow up, destroy property, and ruin lives. The feds say that the supply of meth is plentiful, be it locally produced or imported.

When the City of Washington passed a prescription-only bill a few years ago, Alderman Guy Midkiff told the Sullivan Journal that the City of Washington wasn’t going to wait for the feds or state to act. “We just wanted to put up a big sign that said, ‘If you want to do meth, you’re not welcome in Washington, Missouri,’” said Midkiff. However, Midkiff’s reasoning – similar to attempts at curtailing much of the illegal drug trade – does not make a connection between controlling legal drugs (i.e. Sudafed) and the availability of illegal drugs, such as meth, heroin, or cocaine. Heroin deaths far outpace death from meth – death from meth overdose is very rare.

While meth labs may be destructive and costly, many people fail to see the rational nexus between prescription-only laws and stopping meth. Billions of dollars and plenty of laws have tried to stop the scourge of heroin and cocaine – both are readily available in Sullivan, Washington, and elsewhere. Again, Midkiff’s logic doesn’t account for the ongoing supply and use of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Marijuana eradication efforts have done nothing to the supply of marijuana – the same holds true for meth.

Opponents of prescription-only laws assert that meth use should be met with rehabilitation and education. Pour the money into cutting off the users and future users. Fewer users, they say, amount to fewer people shaking-n-baking to feed addictions. If both sides seem to agree on anything, it’s that no one solution will be the panacea for such an addictive drug as meth. But, opponents scream, eroding law-abiding citizens’ rights is certainly not the route to a solution.

In the meantime, sales of OTC cold/allergy meds have plummeted at local retailers and pharmacies. Facebook posts to the Sullivan Journal have overwhelmingly been negative towards the new prescription-only ordinance. An effort to pass the same thing at the state level failed in Missouri and 16 other states last year. A compromise bill would severely limit the amount of OTC purchases and prohibit felons from purchasing without a prescription.

For now, it remains a wait-and-see for OTC.

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