Oregon Law Restricts Meth-Related Medications

This past week, Oregon enacted legislation to restrict the sale of medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of the illegal drug crystal meth. The new law is the first in the nation to require a prescription for such medications, like some kinds of Sudafed, which are typically sold over the counter. Host John Ydstie talks about this law and and other anti-meth legislation pending at the federal level with Robert Bovett, who advises the governor of Oregon on drug enforcement issues.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This past week the state of Oregon took a radical step aimed at curbing the abuse of crystal meth, a drug that's had a devastating impact, especially in rural America. Oregon's governor signed a law requiring prescriptions for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine. That's one of the main ingredients needed to make crystal meth. It means cold sufferers who want remedies like Sudafed can only get them with a doctor's blessing. We're joined now by Robert Bovett. He's a member of the Oregon governor's task force on crystal meth.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT BOVETT (Oregon Crystal Meth Task Force): Well, thank you.

YDSTIE: Now before this new law, Oregon was one of the states that required a signature and ID from people buying medications containing pseudoephedrine. You had success with this, and so did states like Oklahoma. Why take another step and require a prescription?

Mr. BOVETT: One of the problems is what we call group smurfing. One of the ways around the successful Oklahoma and Oregon rule is just to gather up five or six of your friends that are also addicts and just go from pharmacy to pharmacy to pharmacy gathering up enough pseudoephedrine to make meth. And our current push to require prescription for the pseudoephedrine-based products is designed to address the groups smurfing.

YDSTIE: But aren't you just putting the burden on the consumer here? Now you've got Oregon cold sufferers who have to call the doctor for a runny nose if they want to get some pseudoephedrine.

Mr. BOVETT: Well, really, that's the biggest non-issue. Cold sufferers aren't going to have to go to the doctor and get a prescription. Many of the pharmaceuticals have already reformulated their products to have phenylephrine rather than pseudoephedrine, which is another decongestant that, for the vast majority of folks, works just as well. Pfizer, for example, the manufacturer of Sudafed, which is probably the most famous product--Sudafed, at least in Oregon here, no longer contains pseudoephedrine. It contains phenylephrine, and it's back on the retail shelves. And as more and more manufacturers, like Johnson & Johnson and others, switch their products to phenylephrine, which they've announced they're doing, really, we don't see much impact or inconvenience to consumers whatsoever.

You need to take a step back and remember that pseudoephedrine doesn't cure anything. It doesn't cure the common cold. It doesn't cure anything. All it does is it makes you feel a little better. It decongests you sometimes for some folks. So we got to keep things in reference as well. There are a certain percentage of folks that do get better relief from pseudoephedrine than phenylephrine, and that's why we made it prescription rather than what we were seriously considering, which was an outright ban.

YDSTIE: Now even with your prescription law, don't you face the problem of Oregon meth dealers simply crossing state line to get pseudoephedrine?

Mr. BOVETT: Absolutely. Our answer to that is, obviously, at a national level, and we are strongly pushing what's called the Combat Meth Act, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, which would essentially utilize the successful Oklahoma-Oregon model and spread it nationwide, so all the states can get the relief that we've had.

YDSTIE: But that's not a prescription law. That's simply a patient ID and signature that passed out of the Judiciary Committee, right?

Mr. BOVETT: Well--and behind pharmacy counters as well. That the other element of the Oklahoma rule. And that's true. But we are wanting to get everyone at least the relief that we've already incurred. And if, for whatever reason, the prescription requirement isn't effective as we establish here in Oregon, then we obviously won't be asking Congress to take that additional step. But I'm pretty certain that we'll see an additional reduction of the incidents of toxic meth labs by moving things to prescription.

YDSTIE: Robert Bovett is an adviser to the governor of Oregon on drug enforcement issues.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BOVETT: Thank you.

YDSTIE: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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