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Congress heats up e-tracking debate to fight meth cooks

Michael Johnsen ...
Critical meth lab states implementing electronic tracking Source: Consumer Healthcare...

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Electronic tracking or prescription-only? That’s the question that vexed Congressional leaders last month as they continued their debate around the best way to expunge clandestine methamphetamine labs from their neighborhoods during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Ascribing prescription-only status to pseudoephedrine certainly carries with it a tone of finality. However, that sledgehammer-to-kill-a-fly approach not only impedes the illegal conversion of PSE to meth, but also the very legal use of PSE as a decongestant for cold sufferers.

“I have concerns about the approach Oregon has taken,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Oregon is one of two states that requires a doctor’s prescription for PSE. Grassley suggested that prescription-only status may not only have little impact on the amount of meth in Oregon, but it also may have driven meth-trafficking further underground, making the illegal activity even more difficult to track for law enforcement.

Electronic logbooking, on the other hand, may not be an effective-enough tool, according to some. That’s especially true if the program is not implemented nationwide. “Smurfers”—those individuals who fraudulently purchase more than their legal limit in PSE products across several pharmacies—could just cross state lines to feed those illegal meth labs in bordering states.

“The director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy told my office that since Kentucky initiated a statewide tracking system in June of 2008, electronic tracking has not had the prevention effect they hoped it would,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the drug caucus, shared with hearing attendees in her opening remarks. She pointed to a steady rise in reported meth labs in that state since 2007, establishing that there certainly is a need to enhance current legal restrictions on the sale of PSE. “[And] the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement estimates that at least 50% of pseudoephedrine sold in California is being used for the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine,” Feinstein added, establishing that the need may be dire.

Currently, two states, Oregon and Mississippi, and a handful of counties just outside of St. Louis require that the decongestant PSE, one of the key ingredients in the recipe for meth, be dispensed only with a prescription. And as many as eight states have partnered with PSE suppliers and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association that represents them to establish a comprehensive electronic logbooking network that shares PSE-purchase attempts across state lines.

“E-tracking is the only solution that will immediately block illegal sales and prevent criminals from buying illegal amounts of PSE to manufacture methamphetamine,” countered the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, adding that the industry would both foot the bill for such a national system, as well as work with the retail community in expanding the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, system.

“When contrasted with electronic tracking, prescription mandates simply fall short,” Linda Suydam, CHPA president, testified. “A prescription mandate would be more expensive to consumers, sales limits from [the Combat Meth Act] would no longer apply and there would be no system for real-time blocking of illegal prescription sales within states or across state lines.” Suydam also challenged the effectiveness of Oregon’s prescription-only law, noting that most of Oregon’s lab reductions occurred prior to the state’s prescription mandate.

All told, 10 states already have adopted laws requiring retailers to use an e-tracking system to track PSE sales, the CHPA noted, eight of which have partnered with the CHPA around NPLEx.

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