Oregon’s Prescription-Only Cold Medicine Law Needs a New Look

In recent years, Cascade Policy Institute has tracked and analyzed the effectiveness of a 2006 Oregon state law that requires all citizens to obtain a doctor’s prescription before buying pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medication.

Overall, our analysis found that the law produced a minimal impact on the state’s methamphetamine problem, based on the fact that not only did Oregon see a significant decline in meth lab incidents prior to the law’s passage, but that Oregon’s neighboring states experienced a similar decline in meth labs over the same time period without enacting such a prescription law.

Since Cascade published our study in 2012, Oregon’s meth problem has shown no signs of improvement.

Last month, Oregon’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program released its 2015 Program Year “Threat Assessment and Counter-Drug Strategy.” Within the report, a number of new data points and law enforcement survey findings cast fresh doubts on the 2006 law. Among the most troubling findings:

  • While the number of meth lab seizures remains low, volume confiscated in Oregon has grown dramatically since 2007. Ninety percent of law enforcement officials indicate crystal meth was highly available in their area.
  • Meth-related arrests in Oregon nearly doubled from 2009 to 2014.
  • According to Oregon law enforcement officials, meth is the drug that contributes most to violent crime and property crime and is the primary funding source for major criminal activity.
  • According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner Division, the number of fatalities related to meth use rose to a historic high of 123 deaths in 2013, over twice the number of fatalities in 2001.

By any reasonable measure, the 2006 law has failed in spectacular fashion. The newly released 2015 HIDTA report should compel Oregon policymakers to reexamine the law and look for anti-meth measures that actually will lead to progress in the fight against meth.

Oregon’s pseudoephedrine prescription requirement law is poor policy because it fails to address the fundamental causes of meth crime. Clearly, Oregon’s meth users and dealers have been able to bypass the prescription requirement in the same manner criminals have done so relative to prescription medicines, despite strict controls on those products. Meanwhile, law-abiding Oregonians live in one of two states in the entire country that prohibit over-the-counter purchases of popular and effective pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medicines. Those products offer powerful relief that allows patients in other states to avoid the costly hassle of making a doctor’s appointment and asking for a prescription.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A number of other states, including Oklahoma, Alabama, and Kentucky, have experienced drastic success against meth criminals due to targeted legislative solutions that penalize criminals, not consumers. Each of those states employs an electronic pseudoephedrine tracking system that automatically blocks illegal pseudoephedrine purchases and provides law enforcement with critical evidence that leads to meth busts and arrests. Oklahoma, for instance, uses a meth-offender block list, which prohibits certain drug offenders from being able to buy pseudoephedrine products. Since 2012, the state has seen a decline in meth-lab incidents of more than 50 percent.

Oregon’s law enforcement officers regularly put their lives on the line to make our communities safer. Given what is at stake, elected officials have a responsibility to debate and pass legislation that fixes problems and improves the quality of life for the people they serve. Equally important, however, is the responsibility to make changes to laws that have failed to deliver results, especially when those laws inconvenience law-abiding consumers without solving crime-related problems.

It’s time to take a look at the prescription requirement law. The stakes are too high not to.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Cold Medicine Prescriptions Have Not Reduced Meth Lab Incidents or Use in Oregon

The production and use of methamphetamine—a highly addictive drug often made with store-bought ingredients—continues to be a serious problem for many states around the country, including Oregon.

Curbing meth’s negative impacts on communities, individuals, and families is an important societal goal; and it is understandable why our state legislators sought to do something about it in 2005.

That year, Oregon adopted a law that included a prescription requirement for what were then over-the-counter medicines containing pseudoephedrine (PSE), such as Advil Cold & Sinus, Claritin-D, and Sudafed. Because PSE is also an ingredient used in the manufacture of meth, the idea behind the prescription requirement was to keep it out of the hands of meth cooks.

The problem is that since 2006, law-abiding Oregonians have had to obtain a prescription to treat minor cold or seasonal allergy symptoms, something consumers in 48 other states don’t have to bother with.

As a result, responsible Oregonians are now forced to take time off work, call a doctor, visit a hospital or clinic, and pick up a prescription—just to buy a box of Mucinex-D. Not only is that a significant hassle for most people, it also leads to higher health care costs, involuntary time away from work for individuals, and lower productivity for Oregon businesses.

Putting aside these considerable burdens, Cascade Policy Institute set out to determine whether the prescription mandate actually has been successful in reducing meth’s impact on the state.

Our study looked at meth trends in Oregon from 2004 to 2010 and compared what was happening here to similar states and the country as a whole. We found that while the number of meth lab related incidents in 2010 is down 97% from 2004, that doesn’t speak to the success of the prescription requirement.

Why not? Because six nearby states that don’t have a prescription requirement, including Washington State and California, experienced similar declines in meth lab incidents. In addition, almost all of Oregon’s 97% drop occurred between 2004 and 2006, before the prescription law even took effect.

The decline in illegal meth manufacturing also has not corresponded to a decline in meth use or availability in Oregon. The sad fact is that the reduction of one source of methamphetamine only leads to the increased availability of the drug from other sources, including Mexican super labs.

Furthermore, a new study by Jane Carlisle Maxwell of the University of Texas at Austin and Mary-Lynn Brecht of the University of California at Los Angeles found that Mexican meth manufacturers (in a country that imposed a ban on pseudoephedrine in 2008) are increasingly using alternative methods to make the drug, including the P2P method, which doesn’t rely on PSE.

In addition, Maxwell and Brecht pointed to findings from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration which indicate that Mexican meth cooks are also “looking to other areas in the world for the required chemicals and the ability of Asian manufacturers who use ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to produce large quantities of high quality methamphetamine which may become another source of the drug in the U.S.”

But independent of the new realities in the manufacturing of methamphetamine, Oregon’s own High Intensity Drug Area (HIDTA), reported in September 2011 that meth continues to be “highly available” and remains “the most serious drug threat in Oregon.” Maxwell and HIDTA’s findings are consistent with Cascade’s conclusions.

While legislators who voted for Oregon’s prescription requirement no doubt had good intentions, the bottom line is that it has been ineffective in achieving its intended purpose of significantly reducing meth production and use in the state.

Given that the law has fallen short of its goals, and because responsible Oregonians have been significantly affected by its prescription requirement, it’s time for Oregon lawmakers to revisit the six-year-old-law and, hopefully, repeal it.

Click here to read the full report.