Drug Policy

How About Fighting Meth Use by Not Requiring a Prescription for Pseudoephedrine? It Works Just As Well.


Last week I noted that bills aimed at requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a methamphetamine precursor, had been blocked or withdrawn in two states. A recent study by Oregon's Cascade Policy Institute suggests why legislators may be leery of this policy as a way of reducing meth production and use: It doesn't work.

In 2004 Oregon became the first state to put cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter, and the following year it became the first state to make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug. So far only one other state, Mississippi, has followed suit. The authors of the Cascade study, Chris Stomberg and Arun Sharma, report that "the number of methamphetamine lab incidents in Oregon declined significantly from 467 in 2004 to 12 in 2010—a decline of more than 90%." But most of this drop occurred before the prescription requirement took effect in 2006, and nearby states without such laws saw similar changes. Washington, for example, also saw a 90 percent decrease in lab incidents (which includes discoveries of labs, dumpsites, chemicals, and equipment) during this period. Looking at incidents per 1 million residents, Stomberg and Sharma find similar rates in Oregon, Washington, and California as of 2010.

Likewise, "the number of methamphetamine admissions to substance abuse centers in Oregon declined about 23% between 2006 and 2009," but a similar trend was apparent in other states as well. Stomberg and Sharma note that "the decline in methamphetamine treatment episodes across the United States between 2006 and 2009 was also about 23%." And while the sources of methamphetamine have shifted (toward Mexico in particular), "both state and federal law enforcement personnel report that methamphetamine continues to be widely available in Oregon." Hence the Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry article on how to synthesize pseudoephedrine out of "readily available N-methylamphetamine."

Stromberg and Sharma, whose study was supported by funding from Consumer Healthcare Products Association, note research suggesting that the costs imposed by the prescription requirement "could add up to be a significant sum" when "spread out over a large number of legitimate uses of pseudoephedrine." The requirement makes pseudoephedrine more expensive, especially when you consider the cost of a doctor's visit. But the main cost is the inconvenience and unnecessary discomfort caused by forcing cold and allergy sufferers to see an M.D. for a cheap,, safe, and effective decongestant they used to buy over the counter. Even if drug warriors attach little value to this burden, it has to exceed the policy's imperceptible benefits.

The whole study is here (PDF)

[Thanks to Michael Holman for the tip.]