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The New Meth

It used to be that when they talked about meth, they talked about cold medicine. Politicians from Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to State Representative Tom O'Halleran -- a Sedona Republican and former cop -- were convinced that if this state could only cut the supply of the ingredients used...
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It used to be that when they talked about meth, they talked about cold medicine. Politicians from Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to State Representative Tom O'Halleran -- a Sedona Republican and former cop -- were convinced that if this state could only cut the supply of the ingredients used to make crystal meth, the demand was sure to drop as well.

That thinking is changing. The Arizona Legislature is poised to pass a $17 million anti-meth bill, perhaps as early as this week. The measure includes millions for drug treatment, millions for a prevention campaign, and millions to help stop Mexican drug traffickers.

Not a word about cold medicine.

There are two good reasons for that.

First, the federal government has done what the state could not. Earlier this month, George W. Bush signed into law national restrictions on the cold medicines often used in home-grown meth labs.

Second, there's an increasing realization that the cold medicine solution doesn't really get at the heart of Arizona's problem.

The city of Phoenix's new laws on cold medicine went into effect in December (See New Times' series "The Perfect Drug.")

It wasn't long after that the cops noticed an intriguing pattern.

The laws were modeled after a plan that had effectively wiped out most of the meth labs in Oklahoma. They regulated all cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient for meth cooks, and the reason that a host of medicines, from Sudafed to Dimetapp Decongestant Infant Drops, work so well to treat your cold and allergies.

Under the new laws, all those medications must be kept behind the counter, available for purchase only after customers sign a special logbook. Every month, the logbook would be faxed to police.

And, as Phoenix Police Sgt. Don Sherrard explains it, even though the pages now make a stack eight feet high, they didn't just end up in the trash . . . or even in a file cabinet somewhere. The cops actually read them.

And that led them to Anthem.

As the officers pored over the logbook, Sherrard says, they kept noticing the same name, over and over, and the same Anthem address.

So they went out to investigate.

Now, it might be funny if Anthem, a cookie-cutter enclave northwest of the city, harbored a coven of tweakers, systematically "cooking" cold medicine into an illegal drug. It's not hard to imagine cops busting the place, sending dozens of skinny soccer moms to jail.

But that isn't what happened when the police officers made their trek up I-17.

Instead, they found a big family that had been racked by the flu.

The members of this family weren't stocking up on pseudoephedrine. They were buying cold medicine.

"The way the log reads, the amount purchased can be deceiving," Sherrard says. "All we see is that the mother's name appeared four or five times -- what it doesn't tell you is that she's buying Children's Tylenol."

(And if mom had wanted to make meth, five boxes of Children's Tylenol was hardly going to do the trick.)

Needless to say, Sherrard says dryly, "we closed that case."

Sherrard says he thinks the city restrictions were worth doing: "If we can stop just one meth lab, it's worth it."

But he's more than willing to admit that, for Phoenix, the law's effect has likely been minimal. Other than that mom in Anthem and, as it turned out, two other people purchasing large but legal quantities, Sherrard says the logbook has provided few leads.

That might indicate that addicts have suddenly stopped cooking meth here, and stopped using. But, as Sherrard is quick to point out, the number of meth lab busts plummeted long before December's legislation.

Years ago, most Arizona addicts made the switch from home-grown labs to purchasing cheaper, more potent meth from Mexican dealers.

"It's just economics," Sherrard says.

That's something the city of Phoenix's meth task force now seems to realize. The group convened last August with one focus: cold medicine.

When they finally met again March 8, though, members talked about treatment. And prevention.

Christina Dye, clinical services division chief for the Arizona Department of Health Services, hit home the real problem: The number of people seeking meth treatment from state agencies has been rising steadily since 2002.

Twenty-eight percent of the people seeking drug treatment in Maricopa County are addicted to meth.

"The largest number of people affected by this drug are in Phoenix, and are in Maricopa County," she said.

In the last year, the Arizona Republic's editorial board penned no fewer than eight editorials calling for tougher statewide restrictions on cold medicine.

The idea was being pushed by Attorney General Goddard, who noted Arizona's large number of meth addicts -- and the success of similar restrictions in Oklahoma. When the Legislature rebuffed Goddard last year, he barnstormed the state, eventually convincing 28 cities to pass laws of their own. And when he announced that he'd be running for reelection earlier this month, Goddard put a statewide pseudoephedrine law at the top of his agenda.

But what he never mentioned -- and what the Republic has yet to report -- is that, on the very day Goddard kicked off his campaign, Congress made such a law entirely redundant.

The reason? A little thing called the Patriot Act.

That act, the bane of civil libertarians everywhere, includes a set of provisions regulating pseudoephedrine.

Like Phoenix's laws, it sets the purchase limit at nine grams per customer, per month.

It requires medications with that ingredient to be kept behind the counter.

And, it requires that customers sign a logbook.

Oddly enough, the Arizona House of Representatives voted 43-14 to approve statewide pseudoephedrine restrictions, with almost identical components, on the very day that President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. (The state Senate has since assigned the bill to several committees.)

Fortunately, the Legislature has chosen to fast-track a different meth bill -- one with a much broader goal.

The bill doesn't just focus on cutting off the supply. It aims to reduce demand.

As of press time, the bill calls for $17 million of funding designed to stop meth abuse. That's $6 million for treatment services, $6 million to help the Department of Public Safety stop the flow of meth from Mexico, and $5 million for a Department of Health Services campaign targeted at kids, modeled on the department's wildly successful anti-smoking initiative.

The bill, sponsored by State Representative Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, passed the House with a 41-8 margin earlier this month, just two weeks after Anderson proposed it. The Senate could approve it as early as this week, sending it in near-record time to Governor Janet Napolitano, who is said to be a supporter.

At least one senator, Anderson says, has questioned why the bill can't wait for the next budget.

"We explained that it was high priority, and it's being fast-tracked," he says. "The scope of the problem has reached the point where, without exception, everybody is aware of how serious it is -- and that we need to do something significant."

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