December 9, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
The "Breaking Bad" television program has brought a new awareness of the problem of methamphetamine abuse in the United States. The drug is a highly addictive concoction made of a nasty brew of chemicals including gasoline, drain cleaner, lye, battery acid and over-the-counter medications such as Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine. Most of the ingredients are easily obtained, and cold medications containing pseudoephedrine can be found in nearly any drug store.
In attempts to cut meth use, some areas have restricted the amount of pseudoephedrine-containing medications a person can buy. So gangs of people team up, and go to drug stores, purchasing the maximum amount individually and pool the take -- a practice known as "smurfing." Shoplifting of the stuff has become so bad, drug stores now keep it behind the counter.
In addition to the harm caused by addiction to the drug, the labs are highly toxic and sometimes explode. A police bust of a meth lab or even the ingredients carried in an automobile requires thousands of dollars of time and effort to neutralize the chemicals and dispose of them. Meth labs are now increasingly mobile, carried in vehicles, RVs and the like.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, "Long-term methamphetamine abuse has many negative health consequences, including extreme weight loss, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, and violent behavior. Chronic methamphetamine abusers can also display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects crawling under the skin)."
So what went right? In 2006 Oregon made over-the-counter medications that contain the key ingredient in meth -- pseudoephedrine -- available only by prescription. The results? By 2009 Oregon's violent crime rate took the biggest drop in the nation. Law enforcement officials attributed the drop to the prescription only law. Today in Oregon, meth lab busts are down 96 percent since the law was enacted. Mississippi passed a similar law last year and meth busts have since dropped 60 percent.
Not everybody is happy about this. Over-the-counter remedies for allergy and colds are a $4 billion business, and making these drugs available by prescription only has been fought by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) a pharmaceutical industry group, which is pushing an electronic tracking system.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?