Supporters of an alternative law to fight methamphetamine in Indiana hope it gets a serious look after the state’s jump to top in the nation in lab activity.
Indiana saw 1,797 meth lab incidents last year, rising above Tennessee with 1,616 and Missouri with 1,496, according to statistics from the Department of Justice’s National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure Report. The Missouri State Highway Patrol compiled the rankings, which reflect activity in operational meth labs, chemical and equipment seizures and dump sites.
“What’s happening is exactly what I knew would happen,” said State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, which is that current law tracking purchases of meth’s key ingredient isn’t making a difference. “It frustrates me to no end... we haven’t made a dent.”
She has introduced a bill every year since 2010 which would instead require a prescription for medication containing that ingredient, pseudoephredrine (PSE), most commonly used in cold medicine. She said the bill didn’t even get a hearing this year.
“I refuse to let this die,” she said. “I see what meth is doing, and I will keep reintroducing it till legislators wake up and say, ‘When are we going to attack this problem?’”
The state’s rise marks an increase from 1,698 reports in 2012, while Tennessee saw a decrease from 1,704 and Missouri a drop from 2,006. Few other states even approach 1,000 reports each year and many are below 100, though exact numbers are hard to pin down since the Drug Enforcement Agency relies on states to self-report.
Indiana’s law to electronically track pseudoephedrine purchases was passed about three years ago, followed last year by felony classification of purchases on behalf of meth cooks, known as “smurfing.” The author of both bills, state Sen. Carlin Yoder, said in a statement that Indiana’s spot in the rankings shows the success of the tracking system, the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx).
“The system continues to demonstrate impressive results. Last year, nearly 60,000 boxes were blocked from being illegally sold, keeping almost 132,000 grams of PSE from potentially ending up in the hands of meth criminals,” his release states. He attributes the nearly 1,800 cases to “law enforcement’s increased focus on tackling the meth problem, including the devotion of a full-time meth suppression division. Law enforcement officials receive real-time data from NPLEx on their mobile devices and computers, which has resulted in a number of arrests made in pharmacy parking lots.”
Lab seizures in Warsaw are down a little while arrests for meth precursors have gone up, according to Mayor Joe Thallemer. He said he doesn’t know if the  numbers reflect the effectiveness of the law or the diligence of law enforcement, but remarked that he hasn’t been very encouraged by purchase limits.
“I don’t think anything has done much at this point,” he said, adding that a prescription-only law may hold more promise. “It seems more like a long-term solution. It’s tamper-proof. I think what we’re doing now is tamper-resistant, but it’s not fully tamper-proof.”
Thirty-six states use a purchase tracking system, according to Yoder’s release, while only Mississippi and Oregon require a prescription, and Missouri allows individual communities to do so. States including Tennessee and West Virginia are considering prescription laws this year.
Authorities in Missouri and Oregon attribute their drop in activity to the prescription requirement. Oregon, the first to enact the law in 2006, saw more than 600 incidents in 2004 – at a time when Indiana had more than 1,300 cases – and reported only six last year, according to the MSHP ranking.
“The purpose of returning PSE to (prescription-only) is to get rid of smurfing and reduce domestic meth labs. Plain and simple,” former Lincoln County, Ore., District Attorney Rob Bovett, the author of Oregon’s law, said in a 2010 interview when Indiana was weighing the two approaches. “The purpose is not to get rid of meth, reduce crime, or any other such thing. Even if they didn’t produce an ounce of meth, domestic meth labs themselves are a huge public health and safety issue, for reasons I am certain you are already aware. Fires, explosions, drug endangered children, toxic waste, environmental exposures, etc.”
Oregon’s prescription law didn’t translate to fewer law enforcement hours, he said, but it did free up law enforcement to go after offenders and smugglers “rather than going from lab to lab like a glorified hazmat team.”
“Getting rid of meth labs and freeing up their time restored proactive interdiction. But this is all beside the point: You need to get rid of meth labs just to get rid of meth labs,” Bovett said.
Yoder also reiterated in his statement his opposition to a prescription requirement, saying it would “lead to higher health care costs for law-abiding Hoosiers, lost productivity for businesses and decreased tax revenues for the state.”
A few drug stores locally have placed voluntary restrictions on PSE sales. They acknowledged that they don’t sell much PSE-containing medicine now, but consider it a fair trade.
Pill Box Pharmacy only sells PSE drugs to patients they recognize, said staff pharmacist Roxanne Whalen. “If somebody comes in off the street that we don’t recognize, we flat out tell them to go to the pharmacy they normally get it at.”
Becky Shroyer, owner of Zale Drugs in Warsaw, said the policy they enacted about a year and a half ago requiring a prescription for PSE-only medication “probably has hurt sales (but) we don’t want to contribute to the meth problem.” She added that they do sell cold medicine that doesn’t contain meth-making ingredients.
She also acknowledged that requiring a prescription would effect a lot of people who need cold medicine, but said it depends on the category of control placed on PSE. A controlled drug would require a doctor’s prescription once every six months, a legend drug only once a year, and a Class 2 drug – such as Dilaudid or Oxycontin – requires a prescription every time.
Kubacki said she sympathizes with people who would need a prescription to treat their cold, but that it must be weighed against the damage meth causes, the costs to fight it and the reputation a plagued area develops.
“I am very, very sympathetic to those who would need a prescription, but the bigger picture is how meth is destroying communities and families and ruining the lives of little kids,” she said. “We’re trying to get people into the state and create jobs, but who wants to bring a family here?”
Kubacki said she got a reminder of those costs when a portable meth lab exploded in a car in Syracuse in November 2010. It was parked near an elementary school, and the explosion that engulfed the car in flames and injured three occupants occurred shortly before the school let out.
“If that had happened half an hour later, it could have been a tragedy. Nothing will change until a tragedy happens and people ask, ‘Why didn’t you stop this?’” she said. “That’s exactly what I’ve been fighting year in and year out. More legislators were on board the last time, but they took the weakest stand – nobody has the guts.”