Methamphetamine production continues in small laboratories in Tennessee and elsewhere around the country in spite of new laws regulating and tracking the sale of pharmacy products used to manufacture the illegal drug.
That is one of the findings of a report released Thursday by the Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability about attempts to control access to legal products sold at pharmacies which are later used to create methamphetamine. Pseudoephedrine, the most common of the so-called “precursor” products used in manufacturing the drug, is an ingredient in many over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies. The report cautions that the relatively short history of precursor control policies and the limitations of available crime and drug use data make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of particular precursor control laws on the production of methamphetamine in small labs.
In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to implement a real-time, electronic tracking system – the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) – to limit the quantities of precursor products that can be purchased by individuals. After much debate, NPLEx was chosen over a more restrictive requirement that people obtain prescriptions from doctors for the pharmacy precursors. The 2011 legislation included a directive for the Comptroller’s office to conduct a study and issue a report.
According to the report, called “Methamphetamine Production in Tennessee,” activity in small labs is prevalent in Tennessee and some other southern and mid-western states despite the implementation of pharmacy precursor sales limitations and enhanced electronic tracking systems. Law enforcement officials in Tennessee and nationally attribute the increase in methamphetamine lab incidents to the ability of producers to work around precursor control policies.
Three areas that have implemented prescription-only policies for methamphetamine precursors – Oregon, Mississippi and some parts of Missouri – have seen decreases in methamphetamine lab incidents. However, two studies of the 2006 Oregon policy question the extent to which other factors may have contributed to the decline since other western states also had similar declines.
Mississippi and parts of Missouri, which were both high methamphetamine production areas in 2009 like Tennessee, saw a reduction in methamphetamine lab incidents in 2010. Law enforcement officials attribute the decline to the change to a prescription-only policy. Other nearby states without prescription-only policies did not see declines in 2010.
The report outlines several factors and options for policy makers to consider in evaluating whether to make a precursor control policy change. Issues include:
- The extent to which pharmacy precursors are used for methamphetamine production
Estimates vary from three to five percent by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents pharmaceutical companies, to somewhere between 30 percent and 70 percent by the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.
- The number of legitimate users of pharmacy precursors and the availability of non-precursor alternatives
Approximately 10 percent of adult Tennesseans purchased pharmacy precursors to methamphetamine from January through June 2012.
- The potential cost and access concerns to consumers of a prescription requirement
Assumptions that drive cost and access estimates of a prescription-only policy include whether consumers will switch to other over-the-counter medicines, whether additional doctor visits will be needed to obtain prescriptions for pseudoephedrine and the need for medical oversight for long-term use of pseudoephedrine.
- The adequacy of Tennessee’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database to track and control prescription-only methamphetamine precursor sales
- Funding alternatives for methamphetamine enforcement when current federal funding is depleted in 2013.
The report emphasizes that precursor control policies focus on preventing or reducing local methamphetamine production, not methamphetamine use. A decrease in the supply of locally-produced methamphetamine may not necessarily result in a reduction in methamphetamine use.
Most of the methamphetamine available in many parts of the United States is supplied by Mexican criminal organizations and is produced in foreign and domestic super labs.
OREA is an agency within the Comptroller’s Office that is charged with providing accurate and objective policy research and analysis for the Tennessee General Assembly and the public.
To view the report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/OREA/.
State Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) responded to the report issued by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury on methamphetamine production in Tennessee.
Senator Beavers was the original Senate sponsor of anti-meth legislation that implemented NPLEx in Tennessee in addition to a drug-offender registry and strict penalties for meth-related crime. The system, which allows retailers to block unlawful attempted purchases of certain cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine (PSE), has been fully operational in Tennessee since January 2012. In a little over one year since implementation, the technology has led to tens of thousands of blocked sales and numerous convictions and arrests.
“I’m pleased with the progress made in NPLEx’s first year implemented in Tennessee. This system provides law enforcement with an invaluable intelligence-gathering tool, helping officers make more meth busts and arrests,” said Senator Beavers. “Reports that more meth labs are being found in our state provides proof that NPLEx is doing exactly what it is designed to do.”
As the comptroller’s report accurately notes, NPLEx is leading law enforcement officials to uncover a greater number of meth labs. Before the system was in place, police officers were blind to suspicious PSE purchasing activity. If they wanted to track purchases, officers would literally have to sift through handwritten logbooks and drive from store to store. Now, the purchasing database is completely electronic and updates in real time. Officers can receive alerts on their mobile phones and put suspects on a watch list that sends out alerts when a suspect attempts to make a purchase.
“As my colleagues in the Tennessee House and Senate debate anti-meth legislation during the 2013 session, I urge them to continue to let this new law work. I have no doubt that we will continue making progress against the scourge of meth production and abuse utilizing the NPLEx system,” he said.