For years, Missouri has been the reigning king of methamphetamine use in the United States. But thanks to a crackdown at the local level in that state, Tennessee could be poised to pass it by.
Law enforcement officials in Missouri say laws in dozens of cities and counties making pseudoephedrine available only to customers with a prescription are changing the drug landscape there dramatically.
Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner, commander of the Franklin, Mo., County Narcotics Enforcement Unit and vice president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, has helped lead the charge to prescription-only pseudoephedrine. He has watched as cities and counties that follow suit see results, particularly in southeast Missouri.
“We’re now at about 70 communities, both counties and cities throughout Missouri,” he said. “That area in the state in the last two years has seen a 68 percent drop in meth labs.”
Though official results have not been finalized, early estimates show Tennessee surpassing Missouri in 2013 in total methamphetamine lab incidents, with Indiana becoming the new No. 1. It’s a notorious title Missouri has held for the large majority of the past decade.
Meth became a problem in the 1990s on the West Coast, as a flood of drugs surged across the Mexican border. Within the decade, domestic producers learned to cook their own, using over-the-counter pseudeophedrine.
And it swept east.
It grew exponentially over the past 10 years or so, accelerating in 2008 in particular.
“The meth scourge in the U.S. began on the West Coast many years ago and it moved east. As those Western states changed their laws to address the meth issue, it continued east,” said Capt. Tim Hull, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. “Missouri is a very rural state. Even in some of the metropolitan areas there are areas of undeveloped and/or abandoned property. Meth cooks like this type of area as it makes detection more difficult.”
In response, Missouri legislators began quickly passing new laws to crack down on meth. First there were limits on the amount of pseudoephedrine one could buy in a certain timeframe, an amount that gradually got smaller as the problem grew. The state then joined the nPlex system, a database designed to track pseudoephedrine across multiple states and stop sales when a buyer reaches the limit.
But Grellner said none of those measures has worked. His assessment has been echoed by Tennessee officials. In January, Tennessee state auditors concluded that their participation in the nPlex system hadn’t led to any meaningful reductions in meth incidents.
“NPlex is a database. So is a fingerprint database, so is a DNA database,” Grellner said. “Fingerprint databases do not stop burglaries and robberies. Fingerprint data are used after a crime to identify suspects. NPlex is the same way. NPlex does not stop meth labs.”
Despite his belief in prescription-only legislation, pharmaceutical companies, led by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, have vigorously opposed such laws. That group argues that prescription-only laws only make it harder and more expensive for legitimate patients to find relief for sinus congestion.
Grellner has heard those arguments. He said the CHPA was vocal in 2009 as the first Missouri cities began passing prescription-only laws. Since then? Not so much.
“That’s the funniest thing. While you’re trying to get these ordinances passed, it is the biggest thing in the news since sliced bread. The minute it passes, that all ends. There’s not another peep,” Grellner said. “These ordinances are not hurting people, they’re not driving up health care costs — they’re helping to stop meth labs.”