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A scare tactic, or a legitimate concern?
That’s part of the debate surrounding law enforcement’s effort to make people get a prescription to buy medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Carlos Gutierrez, senior director of state government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said violent Mexican drug cartels are one of the repercussions of prescription-only pseudoephedrine laws.
“In the states that have really restricted this, the cartels are coming in to provide the supply” of methamphetamine, he said.
Gutierrez said that could happen in communities across Tennessee if the prescription-only pseudoephedrine movement is successful.
According to the FBI, Mexico is the main foreign supplier of methamphetamine to the United States.
“I think it’s proven in data that Mexican drug cartels will come in,” Gutierrez said. “The violence associated with these drug gangs is terrible.”
According to testimony FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration officials gave to a U.S. Senate committee in 2010, cartels have been known to leave the beheaded and mutilated bodies of their victims in public to intimidate police and law-abiding citizens.
“The drug industry’s lobbyist comments to you about drug cartels are merely smoke and mirrors to keep local governments from passing prescription requirements,” said 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson.
Meth can be made locally using pseudoephedrine and other ingredients.
Tennessee’s law-enforcement community believes requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine will decrease the number of meth labs in the state.
“The purpose in requiring the prescription is to end or greatly reduce the ability of local people to make meth by using meth labs,” Johnson said. “Meth labs lead to drug endangered children and tremendous taxpayer costs.”
Pseudoephedrine is found in many cold- and allergy-relief medications like Sudafed and Allegra-D.
So far, law enforcement has been unsuccessful in getting the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a prescription-only pseudoephedrine law.
“We are often credited with making that law fail, but I would disagree with that,” Gutierrez said. “I think at the end of the day, it is the voting public that has decided that the law not get passed. The representatives of the people in Nashville have complied with what their constituents want.”
Law enforcement is no longer putting their hope in the General Assembly. They have been approaching local governments trying to get ordinances passed that would prohibit the sale of pseudoephedrine without a prescription.
“Hopefully, we’ll see a change if we get some of these cities to start going prescription-only,” Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy John Mayes said.
There are questions about the legality of local governments trying to restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine.
“The MTAS (Municipal Technical Advisory Service) people have issued legal opinions that basically say because the Food and Drug Administration de-scheduled pseudoephedrine years ago that these city ordinances may not be held to be valid,” 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said.
“That remains to be seen.”
Oregon is often cited as an example of the kind of success pseudoephedrine prescription-only laws can have.
“Oregon only had five meth labs last year,” Johnson said.
Labs may be down, but the law hasn’t kept meth out of Oregon.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, police in Portland, Ore., confiscated 22 pounds of meth during a traffic stop last year.
A report by The Oregonian newspaper also found “Mexican cartels, including the powerful Sinaloa and the brutal Los Zetas, have infiltrated almost every corner of Oregon.”
“They not only introduce methamphetamine, they introduce heroin again,” Gutierrez said. “Just beyond the introduction of more drugs, you also get the crime associated with these cartels.”
Johnson, whose judicial district includes Roane County, said drug cartels are already operating in Tennessee.
“Law enforcement knows how to deal with drug dealers and cartels,” Johnson said. “Drug cartels and their dealers are all operating as an illegal activity. Drug manufacturers are, however, selling drugs as a legal business.”
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Gutierrez’s organization, represents manufacturers of pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medications.
Johnson said the makers of those medicines are motivated by money.
“What we are trying to combat with a prescription requirement is to regulate the legal drug industry sales that end up being used for illegal purposes,” he said, “making meth smurfs who now can legally buy Sudafed without a prescription who then sell it to be used in the dangerous and costly meth labs.”
“The drug industry is making billions because of these smurfs,” Johnson added. “The drug industry does not want to lose this lucrative-but- deadly business. That is why they throw out ‘beware of the Mexican drug cartels.’”
In addition to representing manufacturers, Gutierrez said his organization also represents consumers who rely on pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medications for relief.
“If you go to any hearing on this matter, it’s not the voting public who wants to restrict this medication,” he said. “It is the law-enforcement community. I can appreciate their desire and I can appreciate the struggles they go through, and we need to find out a way to create the best law to prevent the illegal diversion of these medications, but at the same time have the same passion for the individuals who need to purchase legally and for legal reasons.”
Laws have already been put in place in Tennessee to try and stop “smurfs” from purchasing pseudoephedrine. The medicines have been placed behind the counter, and there are limits on how much a person can buy.
Photo identification and a signature is required to purchase it.
“Inconvenience is what the current law already is,” Gutierrez said. “Giving up your driver’s license, having it behind the counter and all your information being on an electronic database.”
A few years ago the Tennessee General Assembly also passed legislation to implement the National Precursor Log Exchange. The program is supposed to provide real-time, electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases.
“It’s an industry-paid-for system that’s supposed to block the sales of pseudoephedrine,” Johnson said. “The comptroller came in and did a report and basically said it’s a failure.”
The report, Methamphetamine Production in Tennessee, was released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury in January.
Comptroller Justin Wilson didn’t have the same viewpoint as Johnson when asked about the report.
“I’m not going to try to paraphrase that report because everyone says it says something differently,” Wilson said.
“I think we need to look at the report itself.”