The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 20, 2011

‘Sudafed bill’ working in Mississippi

Don’t try to tell the director of Mississippi’s Bureau of Narcotics that a new prescription-only law isn’t making a massive dent in the number of illegal methamphetamine labs that have mushroomed in recent years across the country.

For that matter, don’t try selling Marshall Fisher on the idea that an alternative to selling common cold and allergy medications via prescriptions only — the industry-touted electronic monitoring system in real time — is a workable idea.

Moreover, you can’t convince Lt. Mike Goff of the West Virginia State Police that meth labs have reduced dramatically since the medications were put behind the counters of pharmacies.

In only six months, the Mississippi law cut the number of labs by 70 percent, Fisher said in a Wednesday interview, although the reduction has at times fallen to 60 percent.

“Why it’s not 70 percent now is we’re bordered by four states still selling over the counter,” he said.

“Dopers are going to those states where they’ve got this wonderful electronic monitoring tracking system that’s supposed to stop all this stuff. They’re showing IDs, and buying, and coming back to Mississippi and cooking it.”

Fisher appeared last winter before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the so-called “Sudafed bill,” one that would make 15 well-known cold and allergy medications available only through a doctor’s prescription.

With Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, pushing to resurrect the bill that failed on a rare tie vote, Fisher might be called upon for an encore. He is willing to make a return visit.

Fisher, a former federal narcotics officer who once effected a full beard and long hair for undercover work, is passionate about ridding America of meth labs and feels the one simple and proven solution is to take the pseudoephedrine-laced medicines out of the hands of criminals by requiring a physician’s prescription.

Admittedly, the need to visit a doctor for a prescription could inconvenience some people, but he sees a far more compelling reason for West Virginia to follow Mississippi’s lead.

In a hearing before Mississippi’s Drug Policy Committee, a juvenile court judge told lawmakers he routinely removes children from the custody of drug-addicted parents. In his career, the judge said he never had a meth-addicted parent return to his court with a petition to get a child returned.

And there was an even seamier side: Children three years and younger taken from such homes have been sexually abused, and some have been infected with diseases.

“That was enough for me,” Fisher said, adding this aspect of the drug world is reason enough to wipe out meth labs.

“If it saves one child from getting sexually abused by some drug-addicted parents, it’s worth every cotton-picking minute we’ve spent on it. I just have no tolerance for these people who want to whine.”

The battle over how cold medicines may be purchased has certainly stirred passions and produced a public relations war of sorts.

In one Mississippi meth lab bust, it was discovered the maker had acquired his pseudoephedrine through a lawful prescription, and opponents of the law suggested it would spawn a tsunami of doctor shopping, thus rendering the act useless.

“That’s the most ridiculous, stupid thing I’ve ever heard of,” Fisher said. “The industry is saying that to get more money.

“You can have a bad doctor write it just like you’ve got prescriptions for pain killers every day. You can go to a physician and say, ‘My back hurts terrible,’ or your shoulder or neck, or knee and leave with a pain prescription. But you can’t go in there and fake the sniffles. Oscar-winning actors can’t. You can’t fake the sniffles.”

The strongest voice to date against Foster’s proposal has been the West Virginia Retailers Association, which represents more than 560 stores, including all chain pharmacies, independent drug stores and grocery outlets. Bridget Lambert, the group’s president, maintains the existing law that took such medications off the counter and requires druggists to log sales is working, pointing to Drug Enforcement Agency numbers that reflect a huge downturn in meth labs in West Virginia.

From a high of 216 in 2005, says the DEA Web site, the number dipped to 44 last year.

But Lt. Mike Goff of the West Virginia State Police says those figures are skewed and hardly reflect reality. He said the actual number last year was 154 labs, and so far in 2011, there have been a known 144.

“Two-thirds of them are in Kanawha County, but you do find some in Raleigh County and other places,” he said.

Typically, a meth maker cooks up a batch exclusively for personal consumption, the State Police officer said.

“There’s no money in it,” he said. “People use it to get high for a few days, then crash and sleep a couple of days.”

Existing law limits the amount of pseudoephedrine to 9 grams within a 30-day period, but that hasn’t stopped meth producers from getting their hands on enough of it to produce the illegal substance.

“But meth makers can get 20 of their friends to buy the maximum legal amounts by shopping around at drug stores,” Goff said.

A new method has emerged elsewhere for making meth, using a 2-liter soft drink bottle to mix up a batch.

“If that ever catches on here, it will explode,” the officer said.

The retailers group says the prescription-only law is not only an inconvenience to those suffering allergies and sinus difficulties, but would also raise the cost of health care since a patient would need to see a doctor to get relief.

Fisher does not see this as a problem, saying, “Everybody needs to go to a doctor at least once a year.”

“This is an unnecessary epidemic,” he says of meth.

 “Will meth go away? No. Mexicans are going to make it and smuggle it in. If you listen to industry, they’ll tell you a guy with a sombrero and serape is going to be on every street corner after you schedule the stuff. They create this parade of horribles. It’s a simple fix. Industry wants to keep it out there where it’s not scheduled because they’re making billions of dollars a year.”

Since meth producers can get allies to buy the legal limit of such products, Fisher agrees with Goff that an electronic monitoring system, operating in real time, is a feeble effort to control meth.

“It’s as ridiculous as showing card tricks to a chicken,” Fisher said. “It’s stupid. Kentucky is the gold standard and their lab numbers have tripled and quadrupled since they’ve had this miracle electronic tracking system.”

Oregon is the only other state with a prescription-law, but Fisher has taken his message to other locales, such as Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Nevada, pitching this approach. What he prefers is a federal act as the ultimate solution.

“It really irritates me,” he said.

“If the people of this country were educated on what’s going on with this over the past several decades — decades that we’ve known about this —  they would be raising hell with the U.S. Congress, telling them, ‘This is a problem you could fix overnight. Get off your behinds and do this.’

“It’s the right thing to do.”

If needed, Fisher is prepared to testify again, provided Foster’s bill makes it to a committee.

“There’s nothing really I can tell them differently than before, other than it’s working for us. Have our meth labs gone completely away? No. They haven’t gone completely away because they still have access to pseudoephedrine in the border states. And that’s the bottom line.”

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