Oregon Meth Law Requires Prescription for Cold Meds

A new law takes effect in Oregon that requires cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed and Claritin D, to be sold only with a prescription. Pseudoephedrine is used in the manufacturing of methamphetamine.

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The key ingredient to methamphetamine is pseudoephedrine. That's commonly bought and sold over the counter as a cold remedy. States around this country have been limiting access to products like Sudafed and Claritin-D in a campaign to keep them out of meth labs.

But no law goes as far as on that takes effect today in Oregon. Colin Fogerty from Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that pseudoephedrine will soon be a prescription-only drug in that state.

COLIN FOGERTY reporting:

Terry's Pharmacy in northeast Portland hasn't changed much in the last 25 years. But a change in state law is coming soon to pharmacies like this one. It requires anyone wanting the common over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine to first get a prescription from a doctor. That annoys consumer Doris Johnson.

Ms. DOROTHY JOHNSON (Consumer): It's still not solving the problem. It causes us a problem.

FOGERTY: But last year in Salem, state lawmakers heard an outcry from constituents about what is widely seen in Oregon as a drug epidemic. State senator Ginny Burdick, a Democrat from Portland, says the prescription-only requirement is a small sacrifice for consumers, compared to the devastating effects of meth.

State Senator GINNY BURDICK (Democrat, Oregon): If you really want to crack down, you have to crack down hard. And most people, when they realize what the impacts of the meth labs are, are more than happy to do that little part to protect our children.

FOGERTY: Burdick's new law was the latest in a series of crackdowns on pseudoephedrine. Oregon has steadily tightened the rules since 2004, with dramatic results. Police seizures of dangerous meth labs have plummeted, down as much as 77 percent.

Federal drug officials are hoping for similar results nationwide since Congress approved the Combat Meth Epidemic Act in March. The law requires pseudoephedrine be sold only behind a counter.

That had support for a trade group for over-the-counter drug makers, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. But the organization's Jennifer Hawks Bland says Oregon's prescription requirement goes too far.

Ms. JENNIFER HAWKS BLAND (Consumer Healthcare Products Association): We want to make sure that consumers have access to the medicines they need when they need them. And in some cases, it may be 2:00 in the morning when you wake up with a terrible sinus headache, and you've got to be able to go and pick up something then.

FOGERTY: But store shelves in Oregon and other states that have limited pseudoephedrine sales are now filled with substitutes made with an alternative cold remedy called phenylephrine. Drug maker Pfizer, for example, which makes Sudafed, reports that consumers appear to be equally satisfied with Sudafed PE, made with the substitute.

But even the most ardent anti-meth advocates concede that restricting drugstore access to pseudoephedrine only affects small time meth cooks. The vast majority of methamphetamine comes from so-called super-labs in Mexico and Southern California.

Bob Kaufman is working construction jobs as he reconstructs his life after a nasty 13-year addiction to meth. He spent part of that time as a meth cook and says limits on pseudoephedrine slowed him down, some. But Kaufman says Oregon's new prescription-only requirement really won't slow meth addiction rates.

Mr. BOB KAUFMAN (Former Meth Addict): There's an overabundance. It's everywhere. As long as there's addicts trying to feed their addiction, they'll find a way.

FOGERTY: The new federal meth law requiring pseudoephedrine be sold only behind the counter takes effect in September. But for now, Oregon remains the only state where consumers would also need a prescription from a doctor.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogerty in Portland.

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