Monday, August 19, 2013

National magazine looks at drug companies' efforts to stop anti-methamphetamine bills, especially in Kentucky

In a strong piece of investigative reporting for Mother Jones magazine, largely about Kentucky, freelancer Jonah Engle delves into the history of how making methamphetamine became a simple task via over-the-counter cold medications, and how drug makers have warded off most state laws intended to make the decongestant pseudoephedrine more difficult to purchase. (Photo by Stacy Kranitz: Cleaning up a meth lab found on school property in London.)

Engle's well-rounded story examines the issue from the viewpoints of politics, law enforcement, drug users and the effects of their habits on their children, while looking at how small-town life -- especially in Kentucky, where meth-related cleanup and law enforcement cost the state $30 million in 2009 -- has been hit hard by the drug. When a bill in 2011 to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a Washington-based group representing the makers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, reportedly spent more than $303,000 in three weeks, with most of the money spent on "robocalls," or automated telephone messages. The bill failed, but in 2012 the legislature passed a law with a tighter limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine anyone can buy in a month, after a strong radio advertising campaign by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The drug is kept behind counters so purchases can be tracked but does not require a prescription.

Engle tells a tragic story of meth in many states, ever since 2007, when the process called "shake-and-bake" or "one-pot" method, became commonplace. "The number of clandestine meth sites discovered by police has increased 63 percent nationwide," Engel writes. "As law enforcement agencies scramble to clean up and dispose of toxic labs, prosecute cooks, and find foster homes for their children, they are waging two battles: one against destitute, strung-out addicts, the other against some of the world's wealthiest and most politically connected drug manufacturers. In the past several years, lawmakers in 25 states have sought to make pseudoephedrine—the one irreplaceable ingredient in a shake-and-bake lab—a prescription drug. In all but two—Oregon and Mississippi—they have failed as the industry has deployed all-star lobbying teams and campaign-trail tactics such as robocalls and advertising blitzes."

In Oregon, the number of meth labs found by police dropped 96 percent since the bill was passed, while in Mississippi the number dropped 74 percent, Engle writes. "Children are no longer being pulled from homes with meth labs, and police officers have been freed up to pursue leads instead of cleaning up labs and chasing smurfers. In 2008, Oregon experienced the largest drop in violent-crime rates in the country. By 2009, property crime rates fell to their lowest in 43 years. That year, overall crime in Oregon reached a 40-year low. The state's Criminal Justice Commission credited the pseudoephedrine prescription bill, along with declining meth use, as key factors."

"Everywhere else, industry has prevailed," Engle reports. "Many states have very limited laws on what lobbyists must report, and they don't monitor spending on robocalls or ads. But news reports and my interviews with legislators in Southeastern and Midwestern states where meth labs are most concentrated—and where CHPA had the biggest fight on its hands—show that the pharmaceutical industry deployed a mix of robocalls, print and radio ads, as well as a Facebook page and a website, These states include Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee." (Read more)

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