Big Pharma And Meth Cooks Agree: Keep Cold Meds Over The Counter In 2006, Oregon successfully made pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth, a prescription drug. Since then, Mother Jones' Jonah Engle reports, 24 states have tried to follow suit — and 23 have failed. Engle attributes those failures to pharmaceutical companies' massive lobbying efforts.
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Big Pharma And Meth Cooks Agree: Keep Cold Meds Over The Counter

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Big Pharma And Meth Cooks Agree: Keep Cold Meds Over The Counter

Big Pharma And Meth Cooks Agree: Keep Cold Meds Over The Counter

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's away today. Millions of Americans have been introduced to the fictional world of methamphetamine use and production through the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Our guest, journalist Jonah Engle, has spent a lot of time in the world of real-life meth users and makers.

His article in the August issue of Mother Jones magazine focuses on the explosion in the number of meth addicts who cook their own drugs with ingredients available over the counter in drugstores and supermarkets. It's a process that's dangerous to cooks and corrosive to their communities. Many states have tried to pass legislation making it more difficult to buy cold and allergy medicines that contain a key ingredient in making meth, the decongestant pseudoephedrine.

But only Oregon and Mississippi have passed laws that make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. Engle tracks the highly funded efforts of lobbyists for the manufacturers of cold medicines that have opposed and largely thwarted the passage of these laws in other states.

Jonah Engle is based in Montreal and has written about drug policy for a number of publications. He now covers the issue for the online news site Beacon. His piece in Mother Jones, supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, is called "Merchants of Meth: How Big Pharma Keeps the Cooks in Business."

Well Jonah Engle, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write about a 15-year-old girl in Kentucky named Amanda(ph) whose parents got into this home-cooked meth. Tell us just a little bit about what she noticed about her mom and dad and what happened.

JONAH ENGLE: The first thing Amanda describes is coming home one day to find her mother passed out on the kitchen floor, completely unresponsive. She shook her, she called out her name, and her mother wouldn't wake up to the point where Amanda actually thought her mother was dead.

What had in fact happened was that her mother had crashed after being high on meth, and in my reporting, recovering meth addicts tell me that they would sometimes stay up for days, if not weeks, at a time, and when they crashed, they crashed really hard, and almost nothing can wake them up.

And what was remarkable about Amanda's story was how fast it all happened. She described her family as a loving one, as close-knit, but in the winter of 2004, 2005, her parents, although she didn't know it at the time, started using methamphetamine. And within four or five months, their lives had fallen apart.

Her father lost his job, he had sores break out over his face. Her once, you know, overweight mother became gaunt, and it devastated the family.

DAVIES: And what did she do?

ENGLE: Well, she actually - her grandparents live next door. So she spent most of her time with her grandparents. But she knew something was up. Her mother insisted nothing was wrong and just, she found - increasingly the trailer in which her parents and younger sister lived became increasingly chaotic. There was a really nasty smell, and at a certain point she just wasn't buying it.

So she started sort of looking around online, and she started putting things together. She noticed empty canisters of Coleman fuel, battery packs, and she put those into Google, and she discovered that these are the ingredients for making meth. So not only were her parents using meth, they were cooking it, and she described it as feeling like a plane was barreling down towards her house.

And she told her grandparents, and one day while coming home from school she got off the bus to see police cars filling up the driveway. They kicked in the door, took her dad away. She didn't see him for two and a half years. He was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary, and her mother was also incarcerated. So it had a terrible impact on the family.

I'm happy to say that they've been reunited, and she says they're closer than ever, and I was able to witness that myself. So it has a happy ending. But this was 2005, and it's really when this new method of making meth starts hitting the scene, known as Shake and Bake.

DAVIES: To the extent you could do so responsibly, tell us how you cook meth, you know, in your home.

ENGLE: Well, it's remarkably easy to make meth this way. All that you need, and the one thing that you have to have, is pseudoephedrine, which is a decongestant that's easily obtained in cold and allergy medicines. You crush it up, and then you just add a handful of other chemicals. You shake it together, and then in a separate bottle you, using some other over-the-counter products, you create a gas, and basically that crystallizes the solution you've made.

So I mentioned things like Drano, lithium strips from batteries, Coleman fuel, and it's really put meth production in the hands of meth addicts. So while I said it's easy, it doesn't mean it's not without its tremendous risks.

DAVIES: And talk about some of those risks.

ENGLE: Well, if all goes well, that is to say if there's no fire or explosion because we're talking about highly volatile chemical reactions contained in nothing but a pop bottle, if that doesn't blow up or catch fire, it still produces toxic gases and byproduct, which goes into the carpet, goes into the paint. People find meth labs in hotel rooms. They found one in a Wal-Mart bathroom, in cars.

So wherever these meth labs are found, you have these bad gases and byproduct. And so in a house, you know, where there are young kids, they crawl around on the carpet, and they're breathing this stuff in. And so from that stem a whole bunch of problems for law enforcement, for foster care services, for the whole community, in effect.

DAVIES: And to give us some context, I mean, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. How was meth made and distributed before this Shake and Bake method?

ENGLE: So meth, until the mid-2000s, was primarily a West Coast drug. You had Mexican drug trafficking organizations working with biker gangs on the West Coast. The main method was something called P2P, which uses a different precursor called phenyl-2-propanone. So that was the main way. But the thing about P2P is that not anyone can do it. It requires some serious knowledge of chemistry.

And it doesn't produce meth that's as potent as Shake and Bake. Shake and bake is the most potent meth available in the world.

DAVIES: Wow. So I guess what's interesting about this is, I mean, there are a lot of drugs and a lot of drugs that are sold and used, but it's - most of them aren't made by the addicts themselves. What are the consequences of addicts being able to cook up their own drugs?

ENGLE: Well, as I mentioned, it's a highly risky process, and often you have meth cooks who are - who haven't slept in days. So they're - you know, they shouldn't be operating a vehicle, let alone, you know, engaging in volatile chemical experiments. But it's also a tremendous risk for the families, for the children in these homes.

And we're seeing it play out. In Kentucky I went to one of two burn units in the state, and burn victims from meth accidents have tripled in the past few years. Their injuries are usually much worse than the average burn victim. They've got both chemical and thermal burns. They're often abusing prescription painkillers, which makes their pain management much more complicated. None of them are insured.

The other thing to add is that Shake and Bake is concentrated in some of the poorest counties in the United States. So you have counties with relatively few resources, and they're just completely overwhelmed with having to clean up meth lab after meth lab. I spoke to a narcotics detective in southeast Kentucky who said, you know, he wants to be going after drug trafficking organizations, but he's been reduced to a glorified garbage man.

I went with him as he went on a meth lab cleanup, and you have to be certified for this. It's quite, quite involved. You know, you put on a gas mask, you put on gloves, you have special chemicals, you've got to quarantine the pop bottles, and that took up basically a day and a half for him going to this one site with meth lab. So it's just overwhelming the system, essentially.

DAVIES: And that's sometimes in cases where there's not even an active investigation. You're just - you're looking at an abandoned meth cooking site, and it still takes enormous amount of time and resources just to clean it up.

ENGLE: Overwhelmingly so, absolutely.

DAVIES: Now what parts of the country did this new method of cooking take root in? What's its appeal?

ENGLE: The highest numbers of meth labs for the past I would say five, six years are clustered in the Midwest and also the Southeast of the United States, so consistently Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky are in the top four. There's a great book called "Methland" by Nick Reding, which looks at the impact of meth in Iowa, and he talks about how meth has sort of followed the hollowing-out of rural America.

So places where people are used to working hard for a living, where a lot of union jobs have left, where there's a lot of - people have to work really hard to get by, and what's really interesting is that in speaking to meth addicts in Kentucky, they talked about how in the early days, in the early days of their use, it actually made them super-human.

It made them better employees, if you will. One meth cook I interviewed in the county jail talked about how he could go to work, you know, work hard in construction, come home, play with the kids, mow the lawn and have energy to burn. So you find it in places that - where there's, you know, people reliant on their physical labor and where they're having to work harder and harder because of the economy.

DAVIES: But when an addict gets deeply into meth use, I mean, they aren't productive. They're not going to work and getting a lot done. What are the effects of extended use, when addicts get very deeply into this, the physical effects on the addict?

ENGLE: Right, well, they typically lose a lot of weight because it's an appetite suppressant. They - you may have seen the disturbing pictures of people whose teeth rot because it affects the - they don't eat. They drink pop, and they grind their teeth, which ruins the enamel. So their teeth, kind of, turn black.

It's been found to have negative impacts on the heart, on the lungs. Also it's a toxic brew. I mean, you're smoking, you know, a mixture of Drano and lithium and Coleman fuel and ammonium nitrate. So it has a number of effects. And I think also what happens is you just burn out, you know, because you don't sleep, and you don't eat.

DAVIES: You have a link to some photos with the story online of mug shots of meth addicts from one arrest to a subsequent arrest months or years later, and it is shocking to see the physical deterioration of these folks.

ENGLE: It's hard to look at, it really is.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonah Engle. He is a reporter based in Montreal covering the drug war and drug policy. His new piece in Mother Jones is called "Merchants of Meth." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Jonah Engle. He is a reporter based in Montreal who has covered the drug war and drug policy. His piece in Mother Jones about new home cooking methods of methamphetamine is called "Merchants of Meth."

You write about how communities in which this kind of home-cooking method of preparing methamphetamine has created - just overwhelmed law enforcement and ravaged families. And as a result, there have been efforts to regulate the materials that are - that it's made of, particularly pseudoephedrine. Explain what they wanted, what law enforcement wanted to do in these cases.

ENGLE: They wanted to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, which was the status it had nationally until 1976. Some 24 states - actually, in all, 25 states have attempted to do this, and really the model for this approach is Oregon, which back in 2006 at the end of a five-year struggle between a particularly persistent prosecutor named Rob Bovett(ph), who faced off against the combined might of the pharmaceutical industry, was able to pass that bill.

And basically what happened was in 2006 Oregon successfully made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, and the number of meth labs in the state has fallen over 90 percent. And so, you know, folks all over the country sort of looked up and took notice. They said look, if it can work in Oregon, why can't it work here. We clearly can't arrest our way out of the problem.

And that's what happened in Kentucky back in 2009. At that time the state was on track to set a new record for meth labs. They had pulled hundreds of kids out of meth homes. And a lot of what I described as far as the cost to law enforcement was really becoming a burden. And it was also, meth labs were spreading east across the state, from the farmland of western Kentucky to the rolling hills of Appalachia.

So they - it was a question of both the extent geographically and the sheer number of meth labs, and they saw what happened in Oregon, and they said why don't we try it.

DAVIES: You write about a legislator in Kentucky, Linda Belcher(ph), former schoolteacher, right, who became convinced that it was important in order to stem the tide of home-cooked meth to make pseudoephedrine harder to get. She introduces legislation, and what happens?

ENGLE: So Linda Belcher starts getting these very concerned calls from citizens saying, you know, don't take my cold and allergy medicine away. The chair of the Health and Welfare Committee and the rest of the committee members are getting tons and tons of calls from constituents saying vote no on this.

And what's odd is that there's been relatively little coverage of the bill in the press. Meanwhile over at the State Legislative Ethics Committee, which tracks lobbying spending, secretary looks at the filings for the month, and the number jumps out at her, and she sees that over $300,000 has been spent by an organization called the Consumer Health Care Products Association.

And she's sort of never heard of this group before, and in the span of three weeks they've set a new lobbying spending record. So she looks into it, and it turns out the Consumer Health Care Products Association, also known as CHPA, is the trade association for makers of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, representing companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and so on.

So what it turns out has happened is that they've not only hired one of the state's top lobbyists, but the bulk of that money has been spent on producing robocalls, so these recorded messages, that go out to thousands of homes in Kentucky with the industry's, the pharmaceutical industry's slant on the issue, saying, you know, the government wants to take your cold and allergy medicine away, press nine and we'll put you through to your legislator.

And so that sort of explains where all these calls came from.

DAVIES: So instantly generated public response, outrage.

ENGLE: Absolutely. The chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, who'd been in office for well over 30 years, said he's hardly ever seen anything like it.

DAVIES: And what was the impact of that effort?

ENGLE: It killed the bill. It didn't get out of committee. I spoke to the chair of the committee, and he said his mind was made up, and this had no impact on him, although he did say that, you know, this kind of tactic can affect some legislators. Be that as it may, it didn't go anywhere. And meanwhile the number of meth labs in Kentucky that year went on to set a new record.

DAVIES: Has this happened around the country?

ENGLE: Well, that's what I discovered. It's happened all over the country. Since 2009, 24 states have tried to follow Oregon's lead, and 23 have failed, and this is the playbook of CHPA, the pharmaceutical industry association. They blanket the state with these robocalls, they hire the top PR and lobbying firms, and they have a remarkable track record.

Now it's important to say that sort of the degree to which they deploy these resources depends on the state. In my reporting, sort of the most aggressive and highest spending campaigns have been in the states with the highest number of meth labs, where presumably their chances of losing would be higher, so therefore requiring greater effort.

DAVIES: Explain what pseudoephedrine is, I mean, what its beneficial properties and why it's used in meth, if you can.

ENGLE: So my understanding is that it's a vasoconstrictor, so that it shrinks the diameter of your blood vessels, thereby relieving congestion in your sinuses. Now it turns out that it doesn't take much to change its molecular structure and turn it into methamphetamine, but that's about as much as I know.

Now I will say that pseudoephedrine is obviously safe and effective as a decongestant, but there are all kinds of warnings on the box that say, you know, if you have any heart trouble, if you're under 12, if you use it for, you know, a consistent number of days, if you're pregnant, you should see a doctor.

And the other thing that's important to add is that there are well over 100 alternative brands of cold and allergy medicine that contain other decongestants, which can't be used to make meth. So it doesn't mean that there's nothing else to be done, either.

DAVIES: And part of the industry's argument is that if folks who have legitimate need for pseudoephedrine for decongesting purposes or whatever, if you require a prescription, it's going to be harder on them. Does it cost more?

ENGLE: The Pharmacy Board of Oregon looked at the effect of its law, of its prescription law on prices, compared to prices in California, and found that there was no increase in the price of the drug. Of course there are additional costs related to time spent having to get a prescription. So clearly there's an added inconvenience.

DAVIES: And at least once you've got to go visit your doctor to get the prescription, presumably.

ENGLE: Right, right. I will add one thing, and this gets to how the pharmaceutical industry has really kind of shaped the message. I spoke to the committee chair of the Justice Committee in Kentucky, the House Justice Committee, that had taken up the bill, and he got more calls because of these robocalls from constituents on this issue than any other before, and he, although he didn't say whether he was for or against the law to me, told me that from his conversations with these constituents, he really didn't - he got a sense that a lot of them were misinformed.

And in face if you listen to the ad that CHPA broadcast at the Pharmaceutical Association broadcast in 2012, there was no mention of a key exemption in the law, which would have exempted pseudoephedrine in gel caps. So you could still get pseudoephedrine over the counter in Kentucky in gel cap form, but that wasn't in the pharmaceutical industry campaign's message.

DAVIES: And why is gel caps exempt from the requirement?

ENGLE: It's considerably harder to transform. You can't turn it into meth as easily.

DAVIES: Jonah Engle writes about drug policy. His piece on home meth makers and efforts to limit their access to a key ingredient appears in Mother Jones. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is away today. We're speaking with journalist Jonah Engle about the explosion in the growth of home-cooked methamphetamine, made with ingredients addicts can get over the counter in drugstores and supermarkets.

In a piece in Mother Jones magazine, Engle writes that lobbyists for manufacturers of cold and allergy medicines have largely thwarted the efforts of state lawmakers to limit access to a key ingredient of home-cooked meth, the decongestant pseudoephedrine.

Now I have to believe that state legislators don't like drug dealers, don't want to see their communities ravaged by meth use. And that, you know, the people who run big companies don't want to help drug dealers and don't want people addicted to meth. What's the industry's case here? What's their argument?

ENGLE: The argument is that this - that prescription legislation is not only ineffective, but it unfairly punishes law-abiding consumers for the actions of the few, of the few who divert this into methamphetamine. And this has been their argument, you know, going back to the '80s, that every time there has been a new attempt to prevent the diversion of pseudoephedrine - or ephedrine, back in the day - they say it's what they say is the refrain: it won't work and it'll hurt law-abiding consumers.

DAVIES: Now are there other restrictions that states can adopt? Like even if you don't require a prescription, place it behind a counter or prevent sales in convenience stores or grocery stores. And do they...

ENGLE: That's all been done. That's all been done. And so basically, the regime that we have now has been in place since 2005. And basically, what happened was going back about 10 years ago, there was a lot of meth labs, a lot of meth use and states where grappling with what to do, the federal laws in place were not effective. And in Oklahoma, a state trooper came across a meth lab in the back of a car and a fight ensued between him and the meth cook. The meth cook grabbed his gun and shot and killed the state trooper, which was all recorded on the dash cam. And that was enough for Oklahoma to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, something that the industry had fought very hard against. They said it wouldn't work. The number of labs immediately plummeted. Oregon followed suit. And then because meth was such a problem, it was enough to get this federal law passed. But shake-and-bake and smurfing basically by two years after the federal laws passed make it ineffective, and since then meth labs have increased 63 percent.

So, you know, we've taken it out of convenience stores. We've taken it, we've put it behind the counter and still meth labs are increasing. Which basically gets us to this point, where some states, where, in fact, 25 states have said let's try to make this prescription only because that is one thing that meth cooks have not figured out how to get around.

DAVIES: Now I know that you spoke to the industry representatives, you write about this in your piece. And one of the things they said was that there is an alternative method of trying to control, you know, the unrestricted sale and access of these drugs. That's something called the NPL - actually, National Precursor Log Exchange. How does that work?

ENGLE: Basically what it does is it enforces federal and state law. So the last time the federal government passed any major legislation on meth was the Combat Meth Act of 2005. What it did was limited how much people - how much pseudoephedrine people could buy a month and a year and it also put the boxes behind the counter. So what NPLEx does is basically a database. So when you go to the pharmacy to buy some Claritin-D, you have to show ID and then how much you bought, and your identity is logged in this NPLEx system, and law enforcement has access to this database.

So it does two things. So if you max out on your monthly allowed limit, it cuts you off for the month or for the year. But it also allows law enforcement to track suspicious patterns or to see, OK, this person is buying, you know, the limit every month. And so it helps, it can help them in their investigations.

DAVIES: So if I have to show an ID - this is everywhere, right, to get these products?

ENGLE: Yes. Yeah.

DAVIES: And information is taken. Why hasn't that been effective in dealing with the problem?

ENGLE: A couple of reasons. One is that in states you find fake ID, so people have multiple IDs and so they get around it that way. But the other critical part of this, you know, explosion in the number of meth labs, I mentioned shake-and-bake. The other thing is this phenomenon known as smurfing. And this is sort of a reaction - an adaptation, if you will - to the new limits on how much pseudoephedrine you can buy.

What meth cooks will do is they will recruit a bunch of people to buy the maximum amount and buy those boxes often at black market rates and it's basically turned NPLEx into Swiss cheese.

DAVIES: Now explain that to me. You say they buy it at black market rates?

ENGLE: Right. So let's say I'm a meth cook, I can only get 15 grams a month under federal law. All I need to do is, you know, get a gang of five or 10 people to buy, you know, how much they can buy and buy it off them. And typically, what I hear is that boxes of pseudoephedrine are going for about $50 a box. And so when you think about where these meth labs are concentrated, some of the poorest parts of America, you know, that's an attractive proposition.

DAVIES: So they go in and pay whatever the shelf prices for the drug and then sell it at a markup to the cooker.

ENGLE: Yeah, tenfold.

DAVIES: OK. Does that make the meth more expensive to cook at home? And does that restrict, I don't know, its use?

ENGLE: I don't know the impact on price, but certainly, I looked at every state. So now some 25 states have adopted NPLEx. And I looked, I basically called the drug enforcement agencies in every state that had NPLEx for at least a year and the overwhelming majority have seen the meth labs go up. So it's not working. One of the, the person who runs NPLEx explained to me that the increasing numbers of labs is not evidence of failure, because in his view, you know, NPLEx is allowing law enforcement to actually find more labs.

DAVIES: I see. So it appears there's more labs they're saying because, in fact, we have better ways of finding them.

ENGLE: Right.

DAVIES: OK. So NPLEx is not a system that's in effect nationwide. It requires states to adopt it.

ENGLE: Right. Yes.

DAVIES: And it's a way of requiring ID and then tracking the purchase of the stuff.


DAVIES: And you also write about law enforcement arresting smurfs, these folks who go in and, you know, buy pseudoephedrine for meth cooks. Talk a little bit about how they do that.

ENGLE: Well, the narcotics officer in Laurel County basically describes it as easy as fishing in a well-stocked pond. He would just drive over to the Walgreens outside of town and just wait for the telltale signs. You know, typically, he said the smurfs would drive up in broken down cars. They would look pretty run down. They would weave all over the road. He'd pulled them over, you know, find pseudoephedrine, find a receipt. It really wasn't that hard. So the thing is that it's just so easy to do that basically you can't arrest your way out of the problem is what I kept being told time and time again.

I mean the county jail - which has about 350 inmates - 100 of the inmates were in there for meth offenses and many more for meth-related offenses. So, you know, crimes committed to support their addiction.

DAVIES: I have to ask you, a lot of what many of us know about methamphetamines - or at least are images of it - come from watching "Breaking Bad," the AMC show. Do you watch it?

ENGLE: I will embarrassingly admit to only having seen the first three episodes. You know, I've spent time in jails with meth cooks who've lost everything. I've spoken to families who saw their loved ones locked up. I've see meth labs out in the open. And it was more horrifying and depressing to watch this TV show than to actually see it in real life. So I think I definitely want to see it, but I've been kind of a little freaked out by the show.

DAVIES: And why was it more depressing to see on television than what you've seen in real life?

ENGLE: Because I think people are complicated. So, you know, I'm sitting in a cell with, you know, Laurel County's best meth cook and he is full of regret. He misses his children. He wants to get his family back together. He's full of remorse and sort of, it's just not unrelent, you know, his humanity was there to see, you know? He wasn't this ruthless guy. He was an addict who, you know, whose life fell apart. And so I think that kind of made it easier to take.

DAVIES: Well, Jonah Engle, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

ENGLE: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Jonah Engle writes about drug policy. He now covers a subject for the online news site Beacon. His piece on home meth makers and efforts to limit their access to a key ingredient appears in Mother Jones.

Coming up, Ed Ward remembers record producer and songwriter, George "Shadow" Morton.

This is FRESH AIR.

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