If ever a law did exactly what it was intended to do, this was it, said Lowndes County Sheriff Eddie Hawkins.
In January 2010, Hawkins, who was then an agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, helped craft a law that required prescriptions for the sale of medicines containing the decongestant pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient in making methamphetamine. The Mississippi Legislature passed the law, and it went into effect in January 2011.
“Our goal wasn’t to solve the meth problem but to solve the meth lab problem, and it did exactly what we said it would do,” said Hawkins, who spent much of his 15 years as an MBN agent shutting down meth labs. “I’ve never been a part of any legislation that was as successful as this.”
That is why, when the legislature passed Senate Bill 2119 last February that allows medicines containing pseudoephedrine to again be sold over the counter, Hawkins was more than a little disappointed.
While the new law isn’t embraced by law enforcement, allergy sufferers say the change will make it easier and cheaper to get popular decongestant medicines such as Sudafed and Claritin-D.
As of Jan. 1, those suffering with allergies and other sinus illnesses no longer have to bear the cost of a doctor’s visit to obtain a prescription for the medicines. That’s a big deal, said B.J. Cougle, owner of B.J.’s Family Pharmacy in Starkville.
“There are some over-the-counter medicines and nasal sprays you can use, but they don’t work nearly as well as the pseudoephedrine products,” Cougle said. “It’s the real deal. They work.”
Cougle said his pharmacy typically fills 300 to 500 prescriptions for pseudoephedrine products each month and expects demand for those products to increase now that they are sold over-the-counter.
“I’m very happy I can buy it over the counter again,” said Holly Fron, 39, of Starkville. “I’ve had allergy problems my whole life. When it went to prescription, what I would end up doing is trying the over-the-counter replacements, which were never as good. So I would wind up going to an urgent care clinic or the doctor’s office to get a prescription. It was always such a hassle. Thankfully, my husband and I have really good insurance. The co-pay for the visit was about $20, I think. But not everybody is in the position I’m in as far as having good insurance. The whole process was just harder than it should be.”
MSU student Camille Green said pseudoephedrine-based decongestants have been a routine part of her life since she developed sinus issues at age 17.
“It’s pretty bad,” said Green, 21. “I’m also on ADHD meds, which don’t work well with Sudafed so I have to be careful how often I get it. I usually get a prescription every other month. Being able to buy Sudafed over the counter is definitely something that will make things easier. When you need Sudafed pretty much year-round, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Hawkins understands the inconvenience for allergy sufferers caused by the old law, but said the benefits to public safety outweigh those concerns.
“In 2010, the year before the law went into effect, we shut down 794 meth labs (statewide) and who knows how many other meth labs we didn’t find,” Hawkins said. “These are dangerous operations. You’re dealing with volatile, highly-toxic chemicals in making meth, and the people who are cooking meth are the most addicted people of all. I can’t tell you how many times we busted meth labs and there were small children living there. It was terrible.”
Labs down, use up during prescription law
When meth use began to surge in the early 2000s, Oregon was the first to require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine-based medicines in 2006. Mississippi became the second state to implement that restriction, but no other states have followed suit.
Oregon also changed its law to allow over-the-counter sales beginning on Jan. 1.
Even with the success of the old law, Hawkins said he was not surprised that other states didn’t follow the strategy of Mississippi and Oregon, nor was he surprised that the new legislation that allows those products to be sold over the counter was approved by a large majority.
“Big pharma has a lot of money,” Hawkins said. “They lobbied hard on this because it puts more money in their pockets having their products sold over the counter. Even though we can show the law worked, I’m not very optimistic we can ever get it changed back.”
By his own admission, requiring prescription for pseudoephedrine products didn’t reduce meth use — “It’s probably higher than it’s ever been,” Hawkins said — but did change the nature of how law enforcement addresses the meth problem.
Most of the meth in the U.S. now comes from Mexican cartels.
“We’ve gone from manufacturing to trafficking in our enforcement,” Hawkins said.
Given the availability of Mexican meth called “ice” that is more potent than what was previously being produced in meth labs around the country, Hawkins said he doesn’t expect to see meth labs return in the numbers the state faced prior to 2011.
“But the problem is, even a small number of meth labs are very hard for us to deal with,” Hawkins said. “Back when we were putting together our legislation, we did a cost analysis for what it took to clean up a meth lab site. For a two-liter cook, the clean-up cost was $2,500. That’s one lab. Here’s the scary part. We busted 794 labs (in 2010). Do the math on the costs.”
Hawkins said a resurgence in meth labs also creates another problem.
“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “We don’t have any agents who are trained and certified to handle these labs. Then, on top of that, it’s taken our manpower away from patrol. In 2010, we were working two or three labs a day across the state. It was a tremendous drain on our resources. The bottom line is, if we busted a lab in Lowndes County tomorrow, we don’t have the resources to deal with it. We’d have to step aside and leave it to MBN to deal with, and they don’t have the resources, either.”
Even some of those who understand what the new law will mean for allergy sufferers have some reservations.
“Generally, I support the idea of people being able to make their own decisions,” Cougle said. “In this case, I think it was probably a good idea to restrict those medicines. I remember what it was like 10 years ago and all the arrests. It ravaged our communities.”
Green has her reservations, too.
“I grew up in Perry County, which was once called the Meth Capital of the World,” she said. “I’m very mindful of the effects it can have on a community. But I also know, at the end of the day, how much being able to buy Sudafed over the counter means for people who suffer so much.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]