Washington pharmacies are about to adopt a new system that tracks purchases of pseudoephedrine, a drug that makes the sniffles more bearable when found in products like Sudafed but also happens to be a key ingredient in homemade methamphetamine. Starting October 15, when a tweaker walks into the local drug store and tries to buy a packet of cold medicine, he will--in theory--be rebuffed by the clerk and tipped off to local law enforcement. But in other states that have adopted identical electronic tracking systems, the enterprising crank cooks have already devised ways to get their hands on all the pills they need.
To enforce that policy, the state's Board of Pharmacy was ordered to adopt "a real-time electronic sales tracking system" that alerts store clerks--and the local police--to customers who have already bought suspicious amounts of the products at other locations. The setup is already in place in 20 other states, mostly in the south and midwest. One of those states is Missouri, where yours truly spent the past three-and-a-half years working as a reporter in St. Louis.
The Show-Me State has led the nation in meth lab busts 10 years running. Their electronic tracking system went live on January 1, but authorities there say that while it has made life a little more difficult for pill-gatherers, it has ultimately done nothing to stem the tide. "People are, instead of going to five different stores, just bringing four other people and each person makes a purchase," a Lawrence County Sheriff's deputy told the AP earlier this year.
The gaping flaw in the electronic tracking system is that many meth cooks are using a new recipe called "shake and bake," which requires significantly fewer pills than were previously needed to manufacture the drug.
This simple--and yet highly combustible--process can be completed with just one or two packets of cold medicine, the amount allowed under most federal and state regulations.
Incredibly, several states that have had "Meth Check" in place for years have actually seen meth-lab incidents increase over time. The AP analyzed nine years worth of DEA data on meth-lab incidents and found that electronic tracking "not only failed to curb the meth trade, which is growing again after a brief decline, it also created a vast and highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup." Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kentucky have had electronic tracking systems identical to Washington's in place since 2008, and since then meth incidents in those states have risen 164, 34, and 65 percent, respectively.
So why are so many states still employing an ineffective policy? For one thing, it costs them virtually nothing to implement. A spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Health says the state has spent $23,000 "in staff time on getting this system ready to launch," but otherwise NPLEx is funded almost entirely by the same pharmaceutical companies who turn a handsome profit on continued drug sales. Naturally, they claim electronic tracking is the best way to keep their product out of the hands of addicts but still easily available for people suffering from a runny nose.
"The makers of these medicines are in the business of making people who feel bad feel better," Elizabeth Funderburk, spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, told me last year. "They don't want their medicine turned into methamphetamine."
Testifying before Congress last April, Kent Shaw, the assistant chief of California's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, disagreed.
"The [pharmaceutical] industry has mastered appearing as if it is attempting to solve the problem," he said. "In reality, it is merely perpetuating the problem in order to continue reaping the financial gains generated by meth labs."
Shaw and other law-enforcement officials argue that requiring a doctor's prescription to obtain pseudoephedrine--a policy that was in place in the U.S. until 1976--is the only surefire solution.
The results in Oregon seem to back them up. Before becoming the first state to adopt a pseudoephedrine prescription measure in 2006 (Mississippi joined Oregon last year), Washington's neighbor to the south seized more than 200 meth labs annually. Two years ago, police found just 10.
This year, Missouri's governor and attorney general are lobbying for a prescription-only model for pseudoephedrine. The proposal has drawn fierce opposition from the pharmaceutical lobby, and also from citizens concerned that cold medicine won't be readily available when they really need it. There are, however, at least a dozen brands of over-the-counter cold pills currently on the market that don't contain pseudoephedrine.