Bad Medicine

Locking up cold medicine makes the politicians feel good -- but it won't put a dent in Arizona's meth habit


Just because Arizona's crystal meth has been around for years doesn't mean it's stagnant. In fact, in the past five years, two big things have happened.

First, meth-lab busts in the state have dropped 68 percent since 2000 -- meaning, police believe, that far fewer addicts are cooking their own stuff.

Arizona state Representative Tim O'Halleran
Arizona state Representative Tim O'Halleran
Phoenix city councilman Dave Siebert
Phoenix city councilman Dave Siebert

Second, in that same period, Arizona has seen a 62 percent increase in people seeking treatment for meth addiction -- meaning more Arizonans than ever are using, and are desperately seeking ways to stop.

Fewer people are cooking meth; more people are abusing meth.

But Arizona lawmakers aren't talking about that.

Instead, they're talking about Oklahoma, and pseudoephedrine.

A common ingredient in over-the-counter cold and flu medicine, pseudoephedrine was designed as a decongestant -- specifically, a decongestant that, unlike its predecessor, ephedrine, couldn't be easily made into crystal meth.

But meth addicts are nothing if not dogged, and many became skilled at extracting pseudoephedrine from Sudafed tablets, combining it with stuff like red phosphorous and iodine, and making meth right in their kitchens.

Such "tabletop" labs became all the rage in heartland states four years ago. Oklahoma, while heavily hit, was far from alone. Places like Missouri and Oregon were also decimated.

The effect was devastating. Labs can be hazardous to firefighters, toxic to kids, and destructive to neighborhoods.

And then there are meth addicts themselves: Many become paranoid, amoral and violent.

Oklahoma law enforcement busted 399 labs in 2000, according to Drug Enforcement Administration records. By 2003, that number was up to a staggering 1,068.

Desperate, state lawmakers seized on a bold plan to stop meth cooks. In April 2004, Oklahoma began restricting sales of any tablet containing pseudoephedrine, which basically meant Sudafed and Claritin-D. Customers had to go to a pharmacy and sign a logbook, and they were strictly limited to nine grams of the stuff per month.

There was no precedent for a law like that. But it worked.

In just two months, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics announced that the number of meth-lab busts per month had dropped 71 percent. They've continued to drop since.

Newspapers around the country reported the stunning development, and in no time, six states passed similar legislation. Congress, too, is considering a bill. (Oregon went even further in August, by limiting pseudoephedrine purchases to customers with a valid prescription.)

Naturally, Arizona was interested.

After all, the state has a serious meth problem.

In 2003, for example, 40 percent of inmates at the Maricopa County Jail tested positive for meth -- a number that's more than doubled since 1999.

Recent studies from Quest Diagnostics, which administers workplace drug tests, show that Arizona has one of the country's highest rates of workers testing positive for meth.

And meth-related deaths are up sharply this year from 2004. (See "Meth Fatalities," Paul Rubin, November 3, 2005.)

Last winter, Representative Tom O'Halleran, a Republican from Sedona, introduced legislation modeled on the Oklahoma plan in the state House of Representatives.

But there was one good reason to resist the plan, made clear in law enforcement statistics.

Arizona didn't have a meth lab problem. It had a meth use problem.

In 2000, according to DEA records, Arizona discovered almost as many tabletop labs as Oklahoma: 384. Respectively, the states had the fifth and sixth highest number of busts in the country.

But while Oklahoma's numbers shot up in 2001, finally peaking in 2003 thanks to its pseudoephedrine laws, Arizona busts started declining in 2001, for entirely different reasons.

They've steadily decreased every year since.

Last year, according to DEA statistics, Arizona reported just 122 meth-lab busts statewide. That's a drop of 68 percent from 2000 -- virtually the same as Oklahoma's more recent success, only without any tough new laws.

Even though Oklahoma's law has been in effect for more than a year, in fact, Arizona continues to see fewer meth-lab busts. And that's despite having some two million more residents than Oklahoma.

There are a few possible explanations for the decrease.

One may be that Arizona has had a pseudoephedrine law for years. It's not as tough as Oklahoma's, and it hasn't earned any headlines, but since 1999, it's been a felony in Arizona to buy or sell more than 24 grams of the stuff in a single purchase. Clerks can also face jail time if they sell pseudoephedrine to anyone they know plans to make meth out of it.

Police, too, worked hard to get the word out about tabletop labs. Phoenix Police Sergeant Don Sherrard, who supervises meth-lab busts, says that a federal grant allowed the department to get the message out: Information about the dangers of meth labs was printed on grocery bags and presented to community groups.

The public responded.

Neighbors of meth cooks, Sherrard says, "started calling us more. And we did put quite a few people in jail."

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is one that few people outside the drug trade would see as a plus: Addicts aren't cooking meth anymore because they don't have to.

Instead, they can just buy the stuff ready-made, from dealers with a Mexican connection.

Of the half-dozen current and former meth addicts who discussed their use with New Times, only one had ever attempted to manufacture meth, and that was years ago.

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2 comments
jay
jay

I am currently writing a story about my brothers meth addiction in Arizona, currently he is in a mental institution as he is convinced people are trying black mail him for murder and money, they have all these micro devices around him tracking his every move, they can threaten him through this devices if he does not do what they tell him, there is plenty more, but my main issue is that alot of the in Arizona comes from the Indian Reservations and law enforcement can not do a thing and the goverment will not help, this is simply crazy, those reservations should be raided once its proved the meth has come from it, 1/2 the goverment must be on the stuff because CRYSTAL METH IS MORE OF THREAT TO THIS COUNTRY THEN TERRORISM,

jay
jay

I am currently writing a story about my brothers meth addiction in Arizona, currently he is in a mental institution as he is convinced people are trying black mail him for murder and money, they have all these micro devices around him tracking his every move, they can threaten him through this devices if he does not do what they tell him, there is plenty more, but my main issue is that alot of the in Arizona comes from the Indian Reservations and law enforcement can not do a thing and the goverment will not help, this is simply crazy, those reservations should be raided once its proved the meth has come from it, 1/2 the goverment must be on the stuff because CRYSTAL METH IS MORE OF THTREAT TO THIS COUNTRY THEN TERRORISM,

 
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