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Statement of Senator Ron Wyden
Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Hearing on

The Status of Meth: Oregon's Experience Making
Pseudoephedrine Prescription Only

April 13, 2010 

Statement of Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon:

I want to thank Senators Feinstein and Grassley, the Co-Chairs of the Caucus for holding this hearing on a very important topic, and for inviting me to participate. 

I have had many conversations and meetings with both of the Co-Chairs and with other Senators about the success that Oregon has had in controlling meth because of its law requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine (PSE).  I appreciate their interest in this important topic, and the opportunity to share Oregon’s experience with the Drug Caucus.  I believe that once the Caucus has heard from all of the witnesses, including Oregon’s Attorney General John Kroger, it will be very clear that Oregon’s prescription requirement for PSE is the  best way to restrict the production of meth.

Before I discuss the history of Oregon’s PSE prescription law, I want to note that the arguments that will be made today against this approach were made in Oregon when the law was debated by the State Legislature.  Lawmakers heard a parade of horribles – any number of negative impacts, inconveniences, and costs that this law would impose on consumers.  During this hearing, you will hear from opponents of Oregon’s law that these problems will happen all across the country if Congress enacts a prescription requirement for PSE.  

It’s important to remember, first of all, that a PSE was a prescription drug up until 1976.  Secondly, I can assure everyone that the dire consequences predicted today are not going to happen.  How do I know that?  Because none of these problems happened in Oregon.  There’s no need to speculate or guess about the impact of a prescription requirement for PSE.  Oregon’s PSE law has been in place for nearly four years now -- and while nothing terrible has happened, a lot of benefits have occurred as a result of restricting access to PSE.

Oregon has had a long history of problems with meth, and has been a leader among states in combating meth.  As manufacturing methods evolved, small scale meth labs became an epidemic in Oregon.  By the year 2001, local newscasts frequently featured stories of meth lab explosions and toddlers taken into state custody after being pulled from houses contaminated by meth labs.  Hundreds of homes across the state were turned into toxic waste sites.  Residents complained about the noxious odors coming from these labs.  Law enforcement officials cleaned up 587 meth labs in Oregon in 2001 alone.

Lawmakers in Oregon soon began to look for ways to control meth.  Realizing that PSE was the key precursor ingredient for meth, Oregon, along with Oklahoma, became the first state to restrict access to PSE in 2004.  Oregon limited the amount of PSE that could be purchased at one time, required PSE to be kept behind the counter, and required purchases of PSE to be recorded in log books.  This approach had a noticeable impact on meth labs in both Oregon and Oklahoma.  The initial success in Oregon and Oklahoma helped spur the enactment of this approach nationally with the passage in 2006 of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA), lead by Senators Feinstein and Grassley.  The CMEA, similarly, had an initial positive impact on the availability of PSE and the number of meth labs nationally. 

Following the enactment of these restrictions, it soon became apparent in Oregon, and later nationally, that this approach could be circumvented rather easily.  While meth cooks were initially deterred by having to show identification and limits on the amount of PSE that could be purchased, they quickly realized they could obtain enough PSE to make meth through a technique known as “smurfing.”  Smurfing is the process of making multiple purchases of a legally allowed amount of PSE at many stores.  This is often accomplished by multiple people working together, and often involves the use of fake IDs to allow a greater number purchases to be made by a single person.

As smurfing has grown, the number of meth labs has spiked in many states.  But that hasn’t happened in Oregon.  Legislators in Oregon understood that putting PSE behind-the-counter, requiring log books, and limiting the purchase amount wasn’t working because they tested the system.  A group of four Oregon legislators conducted their own smurfing operation as an experiment.  Within an hour, they had purchased more than enough PSE to cook a batch of meth.

On July 1st, 2006, Oregon became the first state to implement a prescription-only law for obtaining PSE.  Immediately, smurfing in Oregon ended and the number of meth labs in the state plummeted.  Since the law went into effect, the number of meth labs in Oregon has been 22 in 2007, 21 in 2008, and 10 in 2009.  Since 2004, this represents a drop of nearly 98%.  That is a staggering level of success.

But what is most remarkable is that this decrease has been achieved at the same time that other states have experienced sharp spikes in the number of meth labs.  In 2009, Missouri lead the nation with 1774 labs.  It is significant to note that the number of meth labs is also up sharply in the three states that use the state-of-the-art electronic tracking and “stop sales” system to restrict PSE purchases.  Quite bluntly, that system is a failure.  Oklahoma had 743 meth labs in 2009.  Kentucky had 741 labs.  And Arkansas had 643.  Again, Oregon had only 10.

Another key factor in understanding the resurgence of meth labs is a change in Mexico’s PSE laws.  Mexican gangs have long been a source of meth in the U.S.  But Mexico imposed a complete ban on PSE that took effect beginning in 2009.  This prohibition on PSE in Mexico has resulted in a much higher level of smurfing in the U.S.  Unfortunately, the electronic tracking of PSE sales has not been effective in controlling smurfing.  Only Oregon’s prescription requirement is working.

Oregon’s prescription requirement for PSE has not only virtually eliminated meth labs, it has also produced a number of other benefits.  Oregon law enforcement officers no longer need to spend so much time cleaning up toxic meth labs.  This has saved a great deal of time and money.  Oregon law enforcement officers are now available to be on the street deterring and preventing crime.

In 2009, the crime rate in Oregon dropped by 10.6%.  While it is not possible to attribute this drop in crime to any one factor alone, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission pointed to Oregon’s PSE law as a major factor that was responsible for the decrease.  In fact, the FBI reported that Oregon had a largest drop in crime of any state.

Oregon’s success with the prescription-only approach has exceeded all expectations.  However, it is clear that implementing this policy at the state level has limitations.  Although Oregon, and now Mississippi, have adopted this approach, waiting for each state to adopt this law will simply take too long.  As with the CMEA, a federal law is required to control the supply of meth. Without a federal law, it is far too easy for meth cooks to go across state lines to smurf PSE wherever it is available without a prescription.

Finally, I want to address the arguments raised against requiring a prescription for PSE.  Here are some of the arguments made by opponents:  This policy is not fair to legitimate consumers.  It unnecessarily forces consumers to visit a doctor and pay a co-pay.  Doctors will be overwhelmed with appointments.  The price of PSE will go up.

Again, let me state that none of those assertions have proven to be true in Oregon.  I hold a town meeting in every county in Oregon every year.  When Oregonians are upset about something, I hear about it.  I’ve not heard one single complaint about Oregon’s PSE law.  Nor have I heard from any State Legislator that they’ve received complaints.  Doctors in Oregon have not been overrun by patients seeking PSE.  Many patients buy other over the counter medications.  Those who wish to get PSE can call their doctor and get a prescription without making an appointment or paying a co-pay.  The price of PSE is not more expensive in Oregon.  In fact, many patients pay less now because of the availability of generic brands of PSE.

Requiring a prescription for PSE is the only approach that  has been shown to significantly reduce the meth supply in this country.  I strongly encourage all of my colleagues to support a prescription requirement for PSE at the federal level.  I look forward to working with Senators Feinstein and Grassley and other members of the Drug Caucus on this and other approaches to combat meth and to help protect the countless people in the U.S. who have fallen victim to this terrible drug.