A growing force against meth use

Major corporations are joining legislative efforts to curb the drug's spread.

Inroads are being made in the fight against homemade methamphetamine - the potent psycho-stimulant that's ravaged millions of lives in the heartland and has now moved to both coasts.

In Rice County, Kan., the sheriff says a community awareness campaign has now made it almost impossible for local meth lab operators to buy the needed over-the-counter ingredients like cold medicines without getting noticed.

Target and other national chain stores like CVS and Rite Aid recently decided to put all such products behind the counter to make them harder to shoplift.

Even major corporations are having an impact. Pfizer, maker of the popular Sudafed, which contains pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient, recently announced it was making a reformulated version available.

All this is coming as states continue to wield their legislative powers against the drug. Already, dozens have passed laws limiting the amount of certain products, like Sudafed or Claritin, that can be bought at one time. Others require purchasers to show identification and sign a register to help discourage potential meth producers.

Six states, led by Oklahoma, have even moved to shift products containing ingredients that can be used in the manufacture of meth from over-the-counter to controlled substances. A similar federal law is pending in Washington.

The combined efforts are having an impact. Local law-enforcement officials across the country are reporting decreases in the number of meth labs in their communities. And national surveys show a slow but steady decrease in usage.

At the same time, however, meth addiction continues to be a major problem in local pockets around the country - in part because in most states, 80 percent of the drug is imported from so-called super labs in places like Mexico.

"The production issue is a very crucial issue on the state level because meth labs are dangerous and volatile. They can blow up, and many of them are rigged to as soon as they're discovered," says Allison Colker, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington. "So it's important to stop the local production, but that doesn't mean you deal with the demand problem. Someone who's addicted to the drug is addicted to the drug, and we need to improve prevention efforts and access to treatment."

Law enforcement's role

Sheriff Steve Bundy in Rice County agrees with that, but he also says that it's imperative for states and communities to continue the crackdown on local meth labs. That's because while local labs account for only 20 percent of meth production, Sheriff Bundy has to use 100 percent of his resources to deal with them.

And he's far ahead of much of the rest of the country. In 2001, Bundy and his department pioneered a program called Meth Watch. They enlisted local retailers to put bold, bright signs near the cold medicines warning buyers that store owners were on the watch for potential meth producers. He also enlisted members of the community - mail carriers, meter readers, road maintenance workers, teachers, and civic organization officials - educating them about the dangers of meth as well as how to spot signs of potential labs.

The results: His office now gets more tips, the number of local meth labs have declined, and when his officers do bust a lab, they find that all the items were bought from out of town, if not out of state.

Bundy says Meth Watch works for two reasons: It involves the whole community, and, since most local meth producers are also users, it plays on their paranoia. "It's hard to appreciate how paranoid these individuals really are. I've been in this business 20 years and never seen anything like it," he says.

Rice County's success is being replicated in communities in more than a dozen states - in part, because of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA.) It represents the manufacturers of over-the-counter cold medicines and has been harshly criticized for opposing laws that make the drugs harder to buy. It began sponsoring Meth Watch as an alternative last year and has made more than $1 million in grants available to communities to start their own Meth Watch programs.

"We don't think Meth Watch is the only solution, but it should be a part of any comprehensive solution," says Elizabeth Assey of CHPA.

The pharmaceutical lobbying group continues to oppose laws that would make pseudoephedrine and other ingredients controlled substances, which basically means they have to be obtained through a licensed pharmacist. Like law-enforcement officers, drug experts, and others, Ms. Assey stresses that improving access to treatment and prevention programs is the most effective way to deal with the meth problem, since it addresses the demand issue, not just supply.

Funding cuts

But funding for drug treatment continues to be cut, as will federal law-enforcement grants for local meth task forces this year.

Bundy of Rice County says that's particularly troubling since meth continues to spread to new rural areas, like upstate New York, where local budgets are already tight.

That's also raising new alarms because meth abuse has recently been tied to increases in hepatitis and HIV in some rural areas. That's prompted experts to put together the first national conference on the community health implications.

Luciano Colonna, executive director of the Harm Reduction Project in Salt Lake City, which is sponsoring the conference, applauds Pfizer and the retailers that support making meth production more difficult. But he, like other experts, contends that more needs to be done in prevention and treatment.

"I really don't believe the problem is with the drug manufacturers, or even the drug sellers. It lies within our society," says Mr. Colonna. "We're living in a society where drugs play a major role in it, and we haven't really come to terms with that."

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