We took an important step forward recently in the fight against this scourge. State Attorney General Bob Cooper told cities that they cannot legally require a prescription for products that contain pseudoephedrine, which is sometimes used to make meth. The authority, he said, rests with the state.
That puts the focus in the fight back where it belongs: stopping meth cooks at the sales counter when they try to buy more pseudoephedrine (PSE) products than the law allows. The state of Tennessee has an effective electronic system to do just that.
Known as NPLEx (National Precursor Log Exchange), the system blocks meth cooks and “smurfers” — individuals who illegally buy PSE products on behalf of meth cooks — by requiring an ID and alerting the pharmacy immediately if the buyer has exceeded the legal limit. Just as important, it lets law enforcement know who the meth cooks are.
What it does not do is punish innocent consumers by preventing them from buying popular cold, flu and allergy medicines they need.
A number of well-intentioned policymakers at the state and local level believe that requiring a prescription for PSE products will make a difference in the battle against meth production. It will, but not the kind of difference they want.
For one thing, it would unfairly burden law-abiding citizens. Families would have to bear the expense of a doctor visit and a prescription, just for basic treatment for a cold or for the allergies that are so prevalent here. It would hit seniors especially hard, causing some to simply forego taking anything. At an advanced age, that can be particularly dangerous.
Moreover, in states where PSE prescription laws have been passed, use of meth has not declined. Instead, Mexican drug cartels have moved in with even more deadly forms of meth and business is booming.
“Meth use is as prominent as it always has been,” Hinds County (Miss.) Sheriff Crieg Oster said in a recent news account. “We’re seeing the higher grade of meth coming from Mexico.”
Mississippi is one of two states where PSE products require a prescription.
Police say 69 cartels are supplying nearly every ounce of meth in Oregon, the only other state with a prescription-only law. These are business-savvy money-makers who don’t depend on cold and allergy pills from the local drugstore and won’t be fazed by such a law. Nationwide, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says they control over 80 percent of the meth market.
So, let’s take a smarter route in Tennessee. Instead of passing any law to punish consumers, we should focus our efforts on making better use of the system we have. A tool like NPLEx works best when it is used diligently and universally. We need to make sure that is happening.
That is where we can do the most good against the meth makers in our midst.
(Editor’s Note: State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland who represents the 22nd Legislative District, serves as chairman of the Criminal Practice Committee of the Tennessee House of Representatives.)