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.

Drug Cartels, Not Cold Medicine Patients, Are the Enemy in Oregon’s Meth War

It seems that despite the best efforts of Oregon policymakers and law enforcement, methamphetamine (meth) abuse continues to ravage the Beaver State.

Recent media coverage has unveiled a newer, darker side of the Oregon drug scene—Mexican drug cartels trafficking meth into our state. In the past, they were a fringe sideshow; more meth was produced locally. That has changed. They are now the dominant supplier. And the meth problem has become less predictable, more expensive, harder to spot, and generally more violent.

The infiltration of drug cartels is the logical outcome of the state’s steady decline in local meth production. Since 2005, Oregon, along with surrounding Washington and California, began to see a drastic drop in the number of meth labs busted in the state. Compounding that trend, policymakers adopted a strict new law in 2006 that required residents to obtain a prescription in order to purchase cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a precursor to meth production. The impetus for the new restriction was the belief that by restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, meth would be kept out of the hands of criminals, and meth abuse in our state would be impacted.

The outcome has turned out to be quite the opposite. As local meth production declined, generally for reasons separate from Oregon’s pseudoephedrine prescription law, violent Mexican drug cartels have been able to infiltrate so much of the state that they have become impossible to ignore. As was pointed out recently by The Oregonian in an exposé on the topic, the Mexican meth now flowing into the state has the added benefit of also being cheaper and more potent than any other meth on the market. As a result, meth abuse, and related meth crime, hasn’t decreased in the least. Indeed, the 2013 Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area’s Threat Assessment and Counter Drug Strategy report surveyed law enforcement across the state who said that meth remains the number-one cause of property crime and violent crime. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control says that Oregon meth seizures have been trending upward since 2008; and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conservatively estimates that 80% of the country’s meth now comes from over the southern border.

But all of these facts still don’t change the minds of those who are convinced that Oregon’s prescription laws for pseudoephedrine successfully cured the state of its meth problem. Oregon’s experience is referenced often as the model solution. Even a recent federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) study cites Oregon’s success in enacting proactive legislation as the reason for its progress. In reality, however, Oregon’s prescription law is not responsible for the state’s drop in meth labs, and its meth problem is anything but solved.

Last year, Cascade Policy Institute performed a study to determine whether Oregon’s prescription mandate was the reason for the state’s reduction in meth labs. The findings were enlightening. Our study concluded that while Oregon had seen a dramatic drop in meth labs between 2004 and 2010, it was not a result of a prescription mandate. We were able to draw that conclusion by looking at regional trends and timelines. Other western states including California and Washington saw similar declines without the passage of prescription laws. And by breaking the data down by year, we found that the vast majority of Oregon’s decline in meth production took place prior to the passage of any prescription law.

Our research was meticulous, reliable, and verifiable. It has since been confirmed by other researchers, including most recently by Siddharth Chandra of Michigan State University. Dr. Chandra conducted his own study in response to the above-mentioned GAO report, criticizing it for its methodology. Noting that the report fails to account for regional trends, he determines that the GAO falsely attributes a decline in meth labs to Oregon’s strict prescription laws. His conclusions are accurate and consistent with Cascade’s.

The fallacy of the Oregon experience has lived on long enough. It is time for policymakers across the country to understand that Oregon’s prescription law for pseudoephedrine has failed to achieve its goals. Meanwhile, honest Oregonians who simply want to buy effective cold medicine over the counter have been forced to suffer due to tight restrictions on their personal freedoms. If progress is to be made in the fight against methamphetamine abuse, an honest discussion must take place. It is time to admit the failure of prescription laws for pseudoephedrine.

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.

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