Occupational Health & Safety

Prescription-only Pseudoephedrine Approach Working, GAO Reports

Two states that have tried it, Oregon and Mississippi, apparently have been able to reduce or maintain the decline in the number of meth lab incidents, according to the report.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report posted Feb. 13 analyzes varying state approaches to prevent diversion of pseudoephedrine (PSE) from decongestant products into illicit methamphetamine production. These approaches include electronic tracking and logging of PSE sales, making them prescription-only, and requiring purchasers to show photo ID. The report to the co-chairs of the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Charles Grassley, says bills have been introduced since 2010 in 18 states to make PSE products prescription-only, and GAO sought to find out how their use in Oregon and Mississippi has affected law enforcement, health care, and others.

The report starkly shows the severity of the problem. Appendix II is a table listing a total of 149,094 meth lab incidents nationwide from 2002 through 2011. Hardest hit were Missouri, with 20,967; Tennessee, with 14,836; and Indiana, with 11,089.

The numbers for Oregon and Mississippi have been generally improving, although the improvement in Oregon is much more impressive. Oregon's total meth lab incidents were 614 in 2002, 584 in 2003, and 632 in 2004, but they declined to 232 in 2005 and then to 67 the following year. Only 11 occurred in 2011. Mississippi's incidents started at 527 in 2002 and had dropped to 182 in 2007, but they rose to 440 in 2008 and to 960 in 2009 and 937 in in 2010. There were 321 in 2011.

The report concludes prescription-only programs apparently have helped the two states reduce or maintain the decline in the number of meth lab incidents and have eased the need by communities for child welfare, law enforcement, and environmental cleanup services after lab incidents.

Data from DEA's National Seizure System data indicate more than 21,000 children were affected by meth lab incidents from 2002 through 2011, according to the report. It says from January 2006 through December 2011, the Missouri Department of Social Services placed 653 affected children in departmental custody, and the state's cost of custodial care since August 2005 is approximately $3.4 million. Tennessee's Department of Children's Services removed 1,625 children from meth lab homes from January 2007 through December 2011 and put them in foster care at a cost of about $70.1 million, the report states.

It attributes a national increase in reported meth lab incidents after 2007 to the emergence of a new technique for smaller-scale production and a new method called "smurfing" -- recruiting groups of individuals to purchase the legally allowable amount of PSE products at multiple stores and then aggregating it for meth production. "Electronic tracking systems help enforce PSE sales limits, but they have not reduced meth lab incidents and have limitations related to smurfing. By electronically automating and linking log-book information on PSE sales, these systems can block individuals from purchasing more than allowed by law. In addition, electronic tracking systems can help law enforcement investigate potential PSE diversion, find meth labs, and prosecute individuals. However, meth cooks have been able to limit the effectiveness of such systems as a means to reduce diversion through the practice of smurfing," GAO reported.

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