Other states see hope in Oklahoma's meth prescription

Monday, January 17th 2005, 6:07 am
By: News On 6

Oklahoma City (AP) After years of locking up methamphetamine makers only to see homemade drug labs multiply on urban stovetops and country roads, Oklahoma got tough.

It locked up the meth makers' cold medicine.

Two months after the state ordered common nasal decongestants like Sudafed and Claritin-D placed behind pharmacy counters, law officers were finding half as many labs. Ten months later, meth lab seizures are down more than 80 percent.

State officials believe many clandestine cooks have closed their kitchens for good now that pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, cannot be sold over the counter.

``To see the sort of diminution we've seen, there is absolutely no other reason,'' said Lonnie Wright, who heads Oklahoma's drug agency and fields the calls from other states where leaders are now looking to lock up pseudoephedrine, too.

Several states have tried to limit the amount of pseudoephedrine sold at one time, but Oklahoma's law went further by requiring the drug to be dispensed by a pharmacist and that consumers sign for it.

Oklahoma averaged 105 meth lab busts a month before the law took effect last April, said Wright, director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. By November, the number had dropped to 19.

Those numbers convinced Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon to push for a largely identical measure there.

``This is a relatively small discomfort for the public,'' said Nixon, whose state limited how much pseudoephedrine a customer could buy but only saw the number of labs surge.

The nasal decongestant can no longer be sold in Oklahoma grocery and convenience stores, along with other retail outlets. Signs on empty drug store shelves direct people looking for relief from stuffy heads to the pharmacist.

Oklahoma's law applies only to pills containing pseudoephedrine. Gel and liquid forms, which normally not found in meth-making, are available over the counter.

Some people grumble when told they'll also have to show an ID to receive their tablets, said Jim Brown, owner of Freeland-Brown Pharmacy in Tulsa.

``But when you tell them why,'' he said, ``they really don't object.''

Rough-and-ready meth making has left ugly scars on communities large and small in Oklahoma.

Children have been found playing among the volatile and highly toxic waste of their parents' drug making. Addicts haunt farmland looking to steal anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, which they use to convert pseudoephedrine into a potent high.

Oklahoma's law bears the names of three state troopers who were killed in situations involving suspected meth users.

Trooper Nik Green used to weep over the people he had arrested who were caught in meth's iron grip, his widow said.

``He said, ``I really feel like this is one of Satan's tools,''' said Linda Green, who helped push for the law soon after Green was shot while investigating a suspicious vehicle on a rural road.

Along with Missouri, lawmakers in neighboring states of Arkansas, Kansas and Texas also are looking to restrict over-the-counter pseudoephedrine.

Arrests and police intelligence indicate Oklahoma meth makers are crossing the state line to buy the drug, said Tom Cunningham, drug task force coordinator for the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.

``When you see Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Texas get on board with the controls,'' he said. ``I think you'll see Oklahoma's numbers drop again.''

Leaders in Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Connecticut and Georgia have advocated laws requiring pharmacists to dispense pseudoephedrine or will be considering such legislation this year.

Oregon's pharmacy board in October approved new cold medicine restrictions that are patterned after the Oklahoma law. And Illinois began this month requiring retailers to lock pseudoephedrine tablets in cabinets or behind counters.

Pfizer Inc., the maker of Sudafed, does not oppose limiting access to the medication, said spokesman Jay Kosminsky.

``Every state has got to get the balance right between access to legitimate consumers and preventing access to criminals,'' he said.

But the company believes it's possible to secure the drug in grocery stores and other outlets _ not just pharmacies, he said. Meanwhile, Pfizer plans to introduce a new form of Sudafed this month made without pseudoephedrine.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores doesn't ``necessarily think the Oklahoma law is the way to go,'' said Mary Ann Wagner, the group's vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs.

Consumers miss out on hundreds of pseudoephedrine products that can't be displayed behind the pharmacy counter, she said.

The group believes the law's apparent success may have more to do with impeding backdoor sales of cases of pseudoephedrine by rogue retailers, she said.

The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has referred to Oklahoma's ``hard hitting'' law in urging states to help fight small labs. But a spokesman said the agency wants more data before drawing conclusions about the approach's success.

Oklahoma is now working on a computer network that will enable authorities to catch people who try to exceed the state's 30-day nine gram pseudoephedrine limit by pharmacy-hopping.

Investigators who were once overwhelmed by scattered mom-and-pop meth labs are now focusing on busting traffickers of Mexican meth, Wright said.

No one knows for sure where the former cooks are turning for their supply, but because meth is so powerfully addictive the search for a new recipe is likely on, he said.

``Somebody,'' Wright said, ``is trying to figure out how to make it out of air or something.''