Will Legislature change state pseudoephedrine law?
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, November 13, 2011
12/22/11 at 8:05 AM
The handwriting is on the wall if not yet on the prescription pad - next year Oklahoma could become the next state in the nation requiring a prescription for purchase of certain allergy products containing pseudoephedrine - PSE.
The decision is up to the Legislature, which is bound to be swayed by what unfolded last week. In only four days, Operation Cast A Net, a multicounty sting run by state and local police, made 334 arrests and seized a dozen illegal meth labs - the single largest sting operation in state history.
More stings may follow with similar publicity and stunning results. If given enough manpower, Operation Cast A Net probably could make a thousand arrests of so-called "smurfs." Smurfs are meth-makers' little helpers. They troll pharmacies procuring products containing PSE, a major component in the production of illegal meth. Smurfs use the PSE to make meth themselves, or they trade the tablets for drugs or they re-sell the tablets to meth cooks - a $5 box fetches up to $50.
The huge arrest number last week reinforces law enforcement's position that requiring a prescription for PSE tablets is the quickest way to dramatically attack this state's raging meth-production problem.
Notice that I did not say it is the best way. Choking off a ready supply of PSE certainly would be a quick and dramatic fix. But it also would be a temporary remedy.
In the world of meth eradication, nothing works for long. Meth-makers might be the world's stupidest criminals - taking the health and safety risks that they do - but they're smart enough to eventually wire around trade barriers. Police must sometimes feel like Wiley Coyote against the roadrunner.
Seven years ago, Oklahoma thought it had its domestic meth-making problem whipped when it limited how much pseudoephedrine could be purchased at one time or in a month, put certain allergy products behind the counter, required purchasers to sign a log at pharmacies and instituted an electronic tracking system for PSE purchases. Oklahoma became the model state in the nation; almost every other state took identical action.
For a few years, Oklahoma's new law kicked butt and took names. Local meth production plummeted; lab seizures fell dramatically. Law enforcement rejoiced and so, for the most part, did a grateful public weary and wary of active and abandoned labs that produced dangerous fumes, fires and toxic trash.
Victory was short lived.
And, meth use didn't diminish at all, thanks to the Mexican drug cartels, which trucked in higher quality and higher priced meth.
The made-in-Oklahoma meth makers eventually rose from the dead, employing a new meth making for dummies process. The so-called shake-and-bake method is simple but dangerous as hell. Shake and bake requires few chemicals, just a small amount of PSE and a two-liter soda bottle. Meth cooks can - and do - whip up small batches as they drive down the street. Sometimes their concoction blows up in their face.
The Legislature next session will be called upon to weigh the costs and benefits of passing a prescription law. Toward that end several lawmakers accompanied police during Operation Cast A Net. They saw first hand the breadth of the problem - swarms of smurfs coming into pharmacies.
With a new law that phenomenon would slow. Requiring a prescription, however, wouldn't just punish the meth trade. It also would punish the law-abiding public. A change would means inconvenience - going to the time and expense of visiting a doctor for a prescription. It doesn't seem fair.
Also, making PSE available by prescription-only would do nearly nothing to reduce meth addiction.
In the past, the Legislature has resisted efforts to pass a prescription law. So, law enforcement is ratcheting up the pressure. With an epidemic under way, it will be hard for lawmakers next session to continue saying no to police, firemen and prosecutors - those on the front lines - who are overwhelmed with cleaning up labs, fighting fires, prosecuting suspected meth cooks, dealers and users. Law enforcement has better things to do with its resources but the meth madness demands otherwise.
In 2006, Oregon enacted a PSE prescription drug law and has seen a sustained drop in meth labs - property crimes are at a 50-year low. Mississippi also recently passed a law and has seen a 67 percent drop in meth lab seizures. But meth-makers travel across state lines to obtain pseudoephedrine and bring it back.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, police are on pace to seize 900 labs this year - and those are the labs they find. How many more are out there that they don't find - 9,000?
"In five minutes a meth cook can walk into a store and buy everything he needs to destroy himself, his family and neighbors," one observer said recently.
How does anyone stop that? Can it be stopped?
Visit a busy pharmacy and most likely the minions of meth are there, fetching stuff for the devil's workshop. Big bunches of them bounce around like bobble dolls on a bumpy road - jittery, jerky, very annoying and a little scary. Take a good, long look: They might just turn out to be the harbingers of the next prescription drug law.
Original Print Headline: Operation Cast A Net: Is a new law needed to curb meth?
Julie DelCour 918-581-8379
Consumers can currently purchase pseudoephedrine tablets at local drug stores by simply providing a valid driver's license. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/Tulsa World