Prescription for pseudoephedrine led to meth lab reduction

Oregon’s access to database not an issue for law enforcement

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — In 2012, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether law enforcement agencies in Oregon were being denied access to a database that monitors sales of key ingredients of methamphetamine.

Almost two years later, there is no indication the Justice Department has taken any action on Wyden’s request. A department spokeswoman said in an email she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

But law enforcement in Oregon said access to the database isn’t an issue, because Oregon’s law requiring a doctor’s prescription for products that include pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant found in many cold medicines that can also be used to make methamphetamine, has been so successful.

The database in question is the National Precursor Log Exchange. NPLEx is a real-time log of sales of items that contain pseudoephedrine.

It is designed to help pharmacies block sales that go beyond legitimate personal use and tip off law enforcement to buyers who may be stockpiling cold medicine to make the illegal drug.

Since the law went into effect July 1, 2006, the number of meth labs in Oregon has plummeted, from 63 in 2006 to seven in 2012, according to the Oregon Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.

“We are not seeing labs in Oregon like there used to be years ago,” said Bend Police Lt. Paul Kansky, who heads up the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement team. “In our tri-county area, most of the methamphetamine that we address is being transported here.”

Because most of the methamphetamine they encounter is being made elsewhere, there is not a pressing need for access to NPLEx, Kansky said.

“For us, at least in Central Oregon, that isn’t a primary piece of information because we’re not seeing the problem with labs,” he said. In areas where meth labs are a significant problem, that information would be more useful, he said.

Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties, said the prescription requirement virtually wiped out meth lab incidents in Oregon. There have been four statewide so far this year, and none of them were operable, he said.

“When we can, we track the source of the (pseudoephedrine, or PSE) for each remaining Oregon meth lab incident. They all trace back to PSE smurfed in neighboring states,” he said, referring to the practice of using many individuals to buy small amounts of products containing pseudoephedrine to avoid detection, known as smurfing. “But the smurfing itself would have occurred in those other states, thus those other jurisdictions might have a desire to access NPLEx, either for their own smurfing investigation, or to assist our lab investigation.”

Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who has advised the Obama administration on drug policy, said many states, including Oregon, succeeded in reducing meth production by putting cold medicine behind a counter where it is harder to steal, and by keeping logs of people who buy them. But after initial declines, most states saw the numbers increase again after criminals figured out ways around these tactics, including carrying multiple IDs.

Oregon’s law requiring a prescription is why the number of meth labs continued to decrease, he said.

NPLEx has been popular with legislatures in states like Kentucky where meth use is very high, he said. Politicians, Humphreys said, like to sign up for the database because it gives the impression of taking action. “So they adopt a position that doesn’t work and the (pharmaceutical) industry pays for it,” he said. “It’s really just the lab book system made electronic.”

In his 2012 letter, Wyden called into question whether the data that is collected is being passed along to pharmaceutical manufacturers, which are a funding source for the project. Wyden worried about the privacy of customers, whose identity is supposed to be known only by the databases users.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com