TULSA -- In the 10 months since Oklahoma pharmacies became the first in the nation to keep popular cold medications behind the counter and require identification to buy them, seizures of illegal methamphetamine labs have fallen by 80 percent, state law enforcement officials say.
Now more than 25 states -- impressed with Oklahoma's success in thwarting small-scale meth production -- are considering similar legislation, in the face of opposition from the pharmaceutical and retail industries. Oregon recently passed a bill, and other states are close behind.
Jailer Larry Dezary, center, fingerprints a man arrested in Enid, Okla., for buying excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine.
(Andy Carpenean -- Enit News & Eagle Via AP)
The law classifies pseudoephedrine -- an ingredient in decongestants such as Sudafed, and a vital ingredient in meth production -- as a controlled substance. That takes it out of convenience stores and grocery stores and limits the amount consumers can buy at pharmacies.
"We saw the seizures of clandestine meth labs increase month after month in the state until the law was enacted in April," said Gov. Brad Henry (D). "The only explanation is that the law had an impact."
Methamphetamine -- a powerful stimulant that impairs the central nervous system -- is the latest drug scourge to capture the nation's attention. In a small Indianapolis town last month, a 10-year-old girl was abducted and killed to keep her from revealing that methamphetamine was being cooked in an apartment near her home.
Known as the poor man's cocaine because of its cheap price and lengthy high, meth has long been a drug of choice among low-income addicts. But what used be an isolated problem in pockets of the West and in rural areas has become a top priority for law enforcement officials across the Southwest and Midwest, where meth production and use has moved from biker gangs to mainstream.
According to a 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, 12.4 million Americans ages 12 and older had tried methamphetamine at least once, with most users between 18 and 34. Last year, more than 3,000 children were rescued during seizures of more than 15,000 meth labs nationwide, according to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Similar federal laws to classify pseudoephedrine as a restricted drug have been introduced in Congress to further stem the production and distribution of the drug. Many of the proposed laws would prohibit certain cold medicine tablets from being sold anywhere but in pharmacies, would require they be kept behind the counter, and would require customers to show identification. Sales of gel and liquid pseudoephedrine are not yet restricted because there is less evidence these products are being cooked for meth.
"We hear quite a bit how inconvenient this is for the consumer, but if we can save one life from being destroyed, one child from being exposed, then what's a little inconvenience?" said Scott Rowland, general counsel for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
"We're just trying to get a breather -- trying to stop the mom-and-pop labs from springing up on every corner, so we can hit the larger problem with traditional law enforcement techniques."
Law enforcement officials estimate that more than 80 percent of the nation's meth supply comes from Mexican or California "super labs." But they note that small-time domestic production diverts resources from the larger trafficking problems.
In addition, mom-and-pop laboratories cost states millions in court costs, cleanup of toxic chemicals, and foster care for children found at home labs. Keith Rutledge, chief drug policy adviser for Arkansas, said that although small-time production accounts for only 20 percent of the state's meth, it uses up 60 percent of state law enforcement resources, with officers requiring hazardous-material suits and other sophisticated environmental equipment.
Researchers from the Sam Walton College of Business studied methamphetamine use in Benton County, Ark., which borders Oklahoma. They estimated that meth use costs employers $20 million annually in lost productivity and absenteeism, as well as increased employee theft and higher health care premium costs. The average cost to a business of each employee who uses meth is $47,500.
Consumer, industry and retail advocates maintain that the law is inconvenient for customers and pharmacists, and could hurt sales.
"Consumers do not have the access that they used to have to various products, and the logbook is very cumbersome," said Mary Ann Wagner, vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs at the National Association of Drug Store Chains.
A spokesman for Pfizer Inc., which makes Sudafed, said that while the company supports restrictions, it does not favor classifying the products as restricted drugs. Consumers Health Care Products Association spokesman Virginia Cox says the Oklahoma law hurts people in rural areas who may have to drive 30 miles to a drugstore.
"This is not an inconvenience -- inconvenience is when your neighbor's house blows up and yours catches fire," said Jason Grellner Jason, a narcotics detective in Franklin County, Mo., a state that last year recorded the highest number of meth lab seizures in the nation.
The Oklahoma legislation was approved by the legislature after three Oklahoma state troopers were shot and killed by meth users. Customers can buy no more than nine grams -- or about 12 boxes of the drug -- over a 30-day period.
Henry has proposed strengthening the law by linking pharmacy databases so that meth users cannot go from store to store looking for the tablets.
Rowland and other law enforcement officials dismiss skeptics who question whether production has decreased -- or whether producers are just better at eluding detection. "It's possible we're missing some -- but not possible we're missing much. We haven't missed it for 10 years," Rowland said. "Every independent barometer shows a huge drop."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.