TOPICS > Health

Oregon Fights Meth Labs

December 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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LEE HOCHBERG: Wendy Givens of Portland, Ore., needed medicine for her allergies last week but with four kids in tow at the drugstore, she found her medication of choice wasn’t on the shelf.

WENDY GIVENS: You want to go to toys. OK. Stand up and we’ll go to toys. They don’t have it here.

LEE HOCHBERG: Millions of cold and allergy sufferers use pseudoephedrine, an active ingredient in medications sold over the counter, like Sudafed and Claritin-D, but those pills are getting harder to buy.

POLICEMAN: Do the door. Do the door. Go, move, move, move —

LEE HOCHBERG: That’s because the pills are also the main ingredient in an illegal drug epidemic.

When mixed in a chemical process with toxins like acetone and battery acid, they are transformed into methamphetamine, a drug that is ruining lives.

The process leaves behind a toxic flammable mess that can contaminate homes, poison children and cost cities thousands of dollars to clean up.

And meth’s trail of destruction doesn’t end there. In Oregon 85 percent of all burglaries, robberies and identity theft cases are committed by meth users.

Multnomah County, Oregon jail spokesman Mike Shults:

LT. MICHAEL SHULTS: It’s amazing to me at least 55 percent of the population that comes in will say, yes, I’ve used meth. I think it’s more than that, you know, based on my experience working in here.

LEE HOCHBERG: And meth is highly addictive. The country’s 1.5 million meth addicts like these shown by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office before and after using meth can stay high for days, becoming paranoid and violent, their teeth rotting and skin scarring red. Sixty percent of U.S. sheriffs say meth is their number-one drug problem.

LEE HOCHBERG: Last year the Oregon Legislature tried to eliminate meth labs by mandating that pseudoephedrine products be kept behind store counters. The measure reduced meth labs by 40 percent.

But Rob Bovett of the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association says some users still got enough pills by fanning out to neighborhood convenience stores.

ROB BOVETT: You gather up about five or six meth addicts. And they go from convenience store to convenience store, picking up a few boxes here and there and then assembling it all and having a meth cook — cook it all up. Some of them are selling more pseudoephedrine products than Coca-Cola.

LEE HOCHBERG: So the state tightened controls. This year it required pseudoephedrine products be kept behind pharmacy counters. A picture ID is required and computers track every sale, capping the quantity a consumer can purchase per day and over 30 days. Oregon says that’s resulted in a 79 percent reduction in meth labs.

But Oregon’s approach came too late for Colleen Todd and her family. Todd used meth for eight years before recently getting straight. She lost the family home twice and then on a day police stormed her house and arrested her, lost her family as well.

Ten-year-old Dakota remembers.

DAKOTA TODD: My friend, she told me that my mom had been arrested and I started crying. It was still really scary for me because I didn’t know where anyone was. I was scared. I wanted my mom back.

LEE HOCHBERG: Dakota was put in the care of her grandmother. More than half of the cases involving foster care in Oregon, cases involving 3,000 children, are driven by meth-addicted parents.

Now reunited with her children after six months, Colleen Todd wonders if the state’s new requirements might have kept her away from the drug.

COLLEEN TODD: I never had to show my ID when I was using a couple years ago. I never had to show my ID to buy pills. No, I wouldn’t have been buying them. I’ll be honest with you. Using drugs, you don’t want your name tracked.

LEE HOCHBERG: Although more than 30 other states have tried to limit access to pseudoephedrine, the federal government has not been as active.

In a series called Unnecessary Epidemic, Portland Oregonian reporter Steve Suo detailed how for the last 20 years Congress has watered down recommendations from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that might have limited the flow of this drug and the chemically similar ephedrine — such requirements as the keeping of import and sales records.

First, Congress agreed to only restrict pseudoephedrine in ephedrine powder, not the pills consumers buy. Later, it did limit access to ephedrine pills but not pseudoephedrine pills.

STEVE SUO: Congress left this door open for this other alternative ingredient, the pseudoephedrine. And the minute the traffickers figured out how to get that pseudoephedrine, they’re back in business.

When that became a problem, Congress came back and said, well, we’ll regulate the sale of pseudoephedrine pills but we’re going to exempt sales of pseudoephedrine pills in blister packs. Well, blister packs became the most popular item for meth cooks.

While all those loopholes are being exploited, the use of meth and the production of meth are steadily growing.

LEE HOCHBERG: Suo says if the government did act, the chemicals could be contained since they’re made in only nine plants in a handful of countries.

STEVE SUO: Meth is one drug that has this really big vulnerability, an Achilles heel, if you will, in that you can’t make it without these chemicals.

And these chemicals only come from only a limited number of places. It’s not that complicated to disrupt the flow of these chemicals to the bad guys.

LEE HOCHBERG: But not everyone agrees Congress should act. A pharmaceutical industry trade group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, has fought for 20 years against control of its $3 billion cold pill industry.

The group declined to be interviewed but said in a statement "Pseudoephedrine-containing products … serve a critical public health need. Congress must enact programs that work, not half-measures that have a greater impact on sick kids … than on criminals."

The industry points out that 65 percent of America’s growing demand for meth now is met by large-scale super labs in Mexico, undercutting any restrictions on U.S. stores.

Oregon’s Bovett answers that American addiction never needed to get this bad.

ROB BOVETT: The statistics are in. We know how to control the supply of methamphetamine. And that’s why it’s so frustrating to many of us because despite the fact that we know what to do, Congress doesn’t seem to quite yet have the will to do everything that needs to get done.

LEE HOCHBERG: Angry about slow federal action, Oregon leaders recently went even farther, passing another anti-meth law.

This one they hope will force pseudoephedrine out of the marketplace entirely.

Starting next July the state will require Oregon consumers get a prescription to buy pseudoephedrine. The state hopes that will steer Oregonians to other easier-to-buy sinus remedies that are still on store shelves but don’t contain pseudoephedrine.

Pfizer’s reformulated Sudafed PE, for example, made with phenylephrine, which cannot be made into methamphetamine.

Oregon’s governor is Ted Kulongoski:

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: I think they have to close down the use of pseudoephedrine ephedrine in the manufacture of these tablets. It’s that simple.

If, in fact, you want the industry to change and they’re not going to change voluntarily, I think the government has to put pressure on them to basically make this change. And having it as a controlled substance I think gets us there.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some pharmaceutical firms are angry. This Schering-Plough Pharmaceutical Company, which has no phenylephrine product to substitute for its Claritin-D cold pill said, "The governor’s idea is taking away from our consumers a choice. Pseudoephedrine is still approved by the FDA for over-the-counter sales. It’s a product that’s been used safely and effectively by millions of law-abiding citizens.

Grocery stores that don’t have pharmacies complain they’ll lose customers to those that do have pharmacies.

And consumers, like Nicole Ellis, fear the prescription requirement will cost them time and money.

NICOLE ELLIS: It’s going to make it a lot more difficult because of the fact that people that don’t have insurance or even that do have insurance it’s still going — you have to pay a co-pay, plus going to the pharmacy and the wait, it just makes it — especially with kids it’s really a hassle.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: I know it’s an inconvenience but the fact is the greater inconvenience is to children and to what this is doing to American society.

LEE HOCHBERG: Congress is expected to vote soon on new federal anti-meth legislation.

A Senate bill similar to Oregon’s to keep cold pills behind pharmacy counters was weakened in the House which wants to allow convenience and grocery stores to keep selling the product.

The House did add a provision to cut foreign aid to countries that failed to monitor the flow of pseudoephedrine across their borders.