Mississippi says prescription-only law works in meth fight

By Leigh Coleman

BILOXI, Mississippi (Reuters) — Mississippi legislators last year put one of the nation’s toughest anti-methamphetamine laws into effect — and officials say the results so far are dramatic.

Since July 1, 2010, a prescription has been required to obtain pseudoephedrine — a decongestant found in popular medicines such as Sudafed and Claritin, but also a key ingredient for crystal meth labs.

Meth lab busts in the state have dropped nearly 70 percent in the eight months since the law took effect. Officers seized 203 meth labs from July 2010 to February 2011, down from 607 seized from July 2009 to February 2010.

“Prescription-only legislation works,” said Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Marshall Fisher.

But neighboring states have not yet tightened access to pseudoephedrine. Mississippians need only drive across the border to Alabama, Florida or Louisiana to get their supply, hampering law enforcement efforts.

As many as 98 percent of the meth labs seized since July were using pseudoephedrine purchased from another state, officials said.

That could change. Sixteen states are considering laws similar to Mississippi’s, Fisher said.

Their interest isn’t surprising.

Federal statistics show abuse of and addiction to methamphetamine cost Americans more than $484 billion annually, and police officials nationwide rank it as the number one drug they battle daily.

More than 12.3 million Americans, or approximately 5.2 percent of the country’s population, have tried methamphetamine, and 1.5 million are regular users, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Critics of the legislation say it is inconvenient to make law-abiding citizens get a prescription for cold medicine.

But supporters also point to positive effects in Oregon, which in 2005 became the first state to pass a law similar to Mississippi’s.

The year before the law passed, Oregon law enforcement officers shut down 472 meth labs. In 2009, the number of meth labs seized was just 10, the lowest number in over a decade.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger said property crime rates, which rose as meth use increased, have also been in steep decline since the availability of pseudoephedrine was restricted.

“The impact of this change has been astounding,” Kroger said in an emailed statement.

On the other end of the spectrum is Indiana, where police seized 1,343 labs and made 1,031 arrests in 2009, the most ever in that state.

And last year, a record number of children were removed from homes where meth labs were discovered, said Niki Crawford, commander of the state’s Meth Suppression Section.

The Meth Suppression Section projects that the number of meth labs found in Indiana would drop to 243 next year if pseudoephedrine was no longer accessible over the counter.

Crawford said law enforcement officials are “hitting hard” for a tougher law but running into resistance from pharmaceutical companies.

“All you have to do is look at Mississippi and Oregon to see that it works,” she said. “The evidence speaks for itself.”

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)

Mississippi says prescription-only law works in meth fight