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Workable solution to meth epidemic right under authorities' noses

Efforts to make PSE Rx-only seem to create greater hassle for consumers than meth makers

WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT — That one of the latest attempts to require prescriptions for cough-cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine appears headed for failure isn't just good news for the retailers that sell those products and the people who need them, it also may encourage those trying to curb the manufacture and use of methamphetamine to focus their efforts on methods that already work, such as the National Precursor Log Exchange, also known as NPLEx, a real-time, industry-funded electronic system that tracks sales of PSE products and is active in 17 states.

(THE NEWS: California Senate committee tables PSE Rx-only bill. For the full story, click here.)

Oregon and Mississippi already classify PSE as a prescription-only medication, and Drug Store News reported last month that North Carolina soon may follow. Authorities in these states have legitimate concerns: Meth is an extremely dangerous drug that destroys lives, families and communities. But the experience of many areas so far has indicated that efforts to make PSE prescription-only don't just create inconvenience for people who actually need it to alleviate their cold and allergy symptoms; it also forces drug pushers simply to look for alternative sources.

In October 2011, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that sales of PSE drugs jumped by 81% in three St. Louis County, Mo., cities along the border of neighboring St. Charles County, which had made PSE prescription-only in August. While a spokesman for Walgreens told the Post-Dispatch the jump was the result of people buying PSE medications for legitimate purposes, local law enforcement officials said it was meth makers crossing the county line for easier access to their ingredients.

Whether the Walgreens spokesman, the local officials or both are correct, it shows that laws like this have a habit of spurring people who need PSE — for legitimate or illegitimate purposes — simply to sidestep the law and find a more convenient means of getting it.

By contrast, NPLEx appears more effective. According to a Consumer Healthcare Products Association report in October 2011, 47,866 sales of PSE products were blocked in first quarter 2011 in all the states with NPLEx, representing 4.1% of sales; in non-NPLEx states, 19,535 sales, or 1.4% of the total, were blocked. In September 2011, a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that even as illegal drug use climbed between 2008 and 2010, meth use declined by 50%, a drop for which the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators credited NPLEx.

Lawmakers and other authorities who want to make PSE Rx-only should take a cue from Prohibition — far from stamping out alcohol, it simply drove Americans to get it illegally and helped create modern organized crime. That's not to say that the experience of Prohibition will repeat itself, but it goes to show, as Sam Neill said in "Jurassic Park," nature always finds a way.

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