Ky. Voices: Taming meth menace

This mock meth lab in Quantico, Va. has been used by the Drug Enforcement Administration to train more than 12,000 law enforcement officers.
This mock meth lab in Quantico, Va. has been used by the Drug Enforcement Administration to train more than 12,000 law enforcement officers. MCT

The Kentucky General Assembly will soon consider a bill making pseudoephedrine — an over-the-counter medicine for cold and allergy symptoms — available by prescription only.

As a 37-year veteran law enforcement officer, I've witnessed the devastating effects of methamphetamine across the state. I understand and share lawmakers' frustration and concern over the meth problem.

Thus, I was called on to help draft legislation that made Kentucky one of the first states to require electronic tracking of the sales of medications containing pseudoephedrine. Implemented in 2006, Kentucky's e-tracking program, called MethCheck, has become a model for numerous other states. It ensures that consumer purchases of pseudoephedrine are limited to legal amounts by blocking over-the-limit sales.

This web-based system is easy to use, free to pharmacies and convenient for customers. Most importantly, it helps law enforcement find many "smurfers" — those who purchase pseudoephedrine for meth cooks — and meth labs that otherwise would go undetected.

Ten states have joined the MethCheck network, now known as the National Precursor Log Exchange, and share information in real time. Each state in the network blocks the sale of thousands of grams of illegal PSE sales each month, preventing it from being converted to meth. Prescription monitoring systems only aspire to such communication and efficiency.

I advocate a better approach than moving PSE to prescription, one already in effect in Oklahoma and being supported by the Illinois attorney general and Iowa drug czar, among others.

The Meth Precursor Block List, or Meth Offender Registry, prevents convicted offenders from purchasing any amount of precursor, thereby stopping them from engaging in even the tiny "one-pot" cooking of meth that so plagues our region. Kentucky's legislature came close to passing this bill sponsored by state Sen. Robert Stivers in 2010, and it will be introduced again in 2011.

Rather than pushing legitimate consumers into higher costs for the medicine they need, such a bill will laser-focus on the convicted criminal, not as punishment, but as crime prevention and accountability in the face of high recidivism.

I respect those who advocate for a prescription mandate to fight meth. Their intentions are well-meaning, but misdirected. My experience shows e-tracking is a superior method to combat this menace. If Kentucky requires prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, I fear law enforcement will lose control of its distribution. And it would take away the evidence law enforcement needs to prosecute — and ultimately stop — the dangerous criminals who produce meth.

A prescription mandate will bring higher health care costs to law-abiding consumers, while it provides no real-time sales tracking, no sales blocking and less access to sales information by law enforcement. E-tracking provides all of this, and denies resources to criminals while identifying them for capture and prosecution.

Indeed, the fastest-growing segment of substance abuse across the nation, in Kentucky in particular, is prescription drugs. To expect the problem to go away simply by requiring a prescription for another drug is naive and foolhardy.

Prescription-only proponents argue that increased meth lab busts prove that e-tracking doesn't work. I believe the exact opposite is true. Meth lab busts have increased in part due to law enforcement agencies having the tool they need to track and arrest meth cooks.

Additionally, it is also important to note how meth labs are manifested and counted in some instances, and how this, along with leads from MethCheck, has led to the increase in discovered labs.

A recent story from Corbin provides an excellent example in which police reported finding 16 "one step labs" in one location.

This case is indicative of the simplified manner in which meth is being produced, and the changes in reporting by law enforcement, both of which contribute to an increase in meth lab numbers.

Tracking down meth makers electronically, rather than placing an unfair burden on law-abiding citizens, is the right choice for Kentucky. Urge your legislators to vote no on prescription only, and yes for the Precursor Block List.