From law enforcement to industry representatives, speakers at joint interim study meeting Monday said they understand there is a methamphetamine problem in Oklahoma and other states that needs to be addressed.
Where they disagreed was in how to address that problem.
Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, wants the state to upgrade pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical in meth production, to a Schedule III drug, which means it would require a prescription to obtain it.
Industry officials and some others said a better strategy would be to bring Oklahoma into the industry-sponsored NPLex program, which monitors drug purchases in participating states at the point of sale.
Weaver said the number of meth labs in Oklahoma grew from 148 in 2007 to 818 last year, a rise he attributed to new the “shake and bake” method of producing meth. With no need of a heat source, labs for this one-pot method of making meth can be small, even mobile.
He said that a governor’s task force a few years ago estimated the cost of Oklahoma’s meth problem to about $1 billion.
Weaver said that in 2006 Oregon made pseudoephedrine a Schedule III drug.
Since that time, he said the state’s crime rate fell to a 50-year low. He said Oregon’s meth-related arrests dropped 32 percent and meth-lab incidents plummeted 96 percent.
Weaver said that Mississippi passed a similar law just one year ago and has already seen a 68 percent reduction in meth-lab incidents and a 62 percent drop in meth arrests.
The director said that Oklahoma’s current pseudoephedrine-tracking program blocked 93,250 purchases out of about 1.5 million attempted purchases last year.
Weaver also said that current Class III regulations allow for five drug refills before a new doctor’s visit is required. A new prescription is not required each time, he said.
Weaver said the industry does not want to see any kind of pseudoephedrine restrictions, because sales of allergy medications containing that ingredient are very profitable. But he does not favor the industry-backed NPLex system.
“I’m not sure I want the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said.
Weaver said the prescription requirement would cover only pills containing pseudoephedrine, not gel or liquid medications. He said that covers only 17 products, leaving more than 100 still available over the counter.
“For the first time in a long time, we can have a positive effect on the meth issue,” he said.
David Starkey of Claremore was behind a recent movement in which several municipalities approved local ordinances requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine. However, an attorney’s general opinion concluded that state law preempted such regulation, placing it out of local communities’ authority.
“The solution absolutely is prescription,” Starkey said, reciting Mississippi’s experience. “It’s been tested and it’s been proven.”
Dr. Jack Beller, chairman of the Oklahoma State Medical Association’s council on legislation, acknowledged that meth is a serious public health and safety issue.
“The solution is not simple or easy,” he said.
Beller said the solution should not over- burden people who are dependent on such medications, or the doctors who would have to write the prescriptions needed to serve them. He also asked whether a prescription requirement would boost insurance costs.
“We need to ask whether we need this drug in this form,” Beller said. “We currently ban other dangerous drugs.”
Generally, the pill form of drugs containing pseudoephedrine is used in making meth, not gel or liquid forms.
Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said the burgeoning meth problem in Tulsa is draining his department’s resources, with six deaths attributed to meth fires since 2008.
“I can’t prosecute my way out of this hole,” he said.
Attacking the problem will require collaboration, the DA said.
“We’re going to have to have a statewide solution,” Harris said.
The prosecutor said it is estimated it can cost an average of $3,500 to clean up a meth lab, plus $5,000 in law enforcement costs, $252,000 in incarceration costs and more than $350,000 for property damage, treatment, mental health, child welfare and other needs.
Harris said costs to the environment and the health of first-responders and innocent people nearby due to the toxic chemicals involved in making meth are uncalculated.
Harris said that in 2009 there were about 315 meth labs in the Tulsa area. With 303 already this year, he said, Tulsa could be on the way to about 450 labs this year.
“If we are wrong and the detractors are right, you can go back and change it,” he said of the proposal to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine-based drugs. “You know the municipalities are crying out for a solution.”
Jim Aquisto represents Appriss, the technology vendor behind NPLex, which he said is a real-time, Web-based program free to the states and law enforcement agencies that use it.
He said that NPLex has blocked sales of 1 million grams of pseudoephedrine thus far this year. Because participating states share information, Aquisto said, sales can be blocked on an interstate basis. In NPLex states, sales are limited to 3.6 grams at one time, 9 grams over a 30-day period.
Aquisto also said that Oregon had experienced a 77 percent drop in meth labs before it enacted its prescription-only law, and that meth-related deaths actually rose 22 percent in that state last year.
Keith Cain is the sheriff of Daviess County, Kentucky and also consults for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group that backs NPLex.
He said his state had 400 meth labs in 2008 and is on track to have more than 1,000 this year.
Cain said there is no definitive answer to the meth problem, whether it’s NPLex or a prescription law, but states should examine all of the facts before making a decision.
“I do not think a prescription mandate will solve the problem,” he said.
Cain said an electronic tracking system such as NPLex blocks purchases at the point of sale, on the front end. In Kentucky, he said, it blocks about 10,000 grams per month. The system also provides law enforcement with data for locating offenders, he said.
Kentucky has a prescription monitoring program, Cain said, but it can take 7-10 days to get the information. He also said that such programs do not “talk state to state.”
Weaver said that Oklahoma has been tracking sales since 2005.
“It’s not going to stop it,” he said. “It doesn’t get us where we want to get, in my opinion.”