Meth lab incidents down in states that banned over-the-counter pseudoephedrine

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Meth lab incidents have declined in states that banned over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, and a new Government Accountability Office report says the available information shows no major drawbacks for consumers and healthcare providers.

Pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold and allergy medications, is a precursor chemical for methamphetamine production. State and federal restrictions of its sale that went into effect between 2004 and 2006 appear to have helped bring nationwide meth lab incidents--seizures of labs, dump sites and materials--down from more than 24,000 in 2004 to about 7,000 in 2007, the GAO says (.pdf). But by 2010, the number of meth lab incidents was back up to 15,000.

Law enforcement officials attribute the rise to new techniques for small-scale production as well as a phenomenon known as smurfing, whereby individuals buy legal amounts of pseudoephedrine and sell it to meth producers or intermediaries. Smurfing allows meth producers to circumvent laws that restricted the amount of pseudoephedrine each person could buy, limits that were enforced through electronic purchase-tracking systems.

To combat smurfing, Oregon and Mississippi enacted laws to require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. Oregon implemented its law in July 2006, and reported only 67 meth lab incidents that year, down from 232 in 2005. In 2011, Oregon reported just 11 meth lab incidents.

Mississippi implemented its law in July 2010, a year where the state saw 937 meth lab incidents. In 2011, that number fell to 321. Fires in meth labs can lead to chemical burns and toxic fume inhalation, which threaten children that live in places with meth labs and law enforcement officers who encounter them. Meth producers also often dump their chemicals and waste indiscriminately.

Law enforcement officials in Oregon and Mississippi credit their bans on over-the-counter pseudoephedrine for the decline in meth lab incidents. The GAO says the relationship between the ban and the subsequent decline in incidents in Oregon is statistically significant. Mississippi couldn't be tested because its ban is too new.

The impact of the bans on consumers who buy pseudoephedrine for legitimate purposes is unknown, the GAO says. State agencies and consumer groups have received few complaints, the report says, and alternative over-the-counter cold and allergy medications do exist.

The GAO also looked into concerns that healthcare providers would face an increased workload to write prescriptions in states that banned over-the-counter pseudoephedrine. Information is limited, but the GAO says providers in Oregon and Mississippi have not seen a substantial increase in workload demands.

The report also notes that even where meth lab incidents have declined, the drug remains highly available, imported from other states and Mexico.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-204 (.pdf)

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