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Big Pharma And Meth Cooks Agree: Keep Cold Meds Over The Counter

Key methamphetamine ingredient pseudoephedrine is most easily found in cold and allergy medicines.
Ann Heisenfelt
Key methamphetamine ingredient pseudoephedrine is most easily found in cold and allergy medicines.

Millions of Americans have seen the fictional world of meth use and production in AMC's Breaking Bad, but journalist Jonah Engle has spent a lot of time in the real world of meth.

In a recent piece in Mother Jones, Engle looks at the explosion in the number of meth addicts who cook their own drugs with ingredients available in drug stores and supermarkets. Meth production is dangerous for the cookers and corrosive to their communities. Engle says law enforcement's efforts to curb the problem by limiting access to a key ingredient — the decongestant pseudoephedrine — have been opposed and largely thwarted by big pharmaceutical companies.

Engle is based in Montreal and has written about drug policy for a number of publications. He now covers the issue for the online news site Beacon. His piece in Mother Jones, called "Merchants of Meth: How Big Pharma Keeps the Cooks in Business," was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Engle tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about how the "shake and bake" method of cooking has changed meth production, and the discovery that pharmaceutical companies were lobbying against state restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine.

Interview Highlights

On the "shake and bake" method of cooking meth

It's remarkably easy to make meth this way. ... The one thing you have to have is pseudoephedrine, which is the decongestant that is easily obtained in cold and allergy medicines. You crush it up and add a handful of other chemicals, you shake it together, and in a separate bottle, using other over-the-counter products, you create a gas and basically that crystallizes the solution you've made. ... It has really put meth production in the hands of meth addicts. So while I said it's easy, it doesn't mean it's without its tremendous risks.

Jonah Engle has written for <em>Foreign Policy</em>, <em>The Atlanta Journal-Constitution</em> and <em>The New York City Independent</em>.
Dave Stevenson / Courtesy of Jonah Engle
Courtesy of Jonah Engle
Jonah Engle has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York City Independent.

On the hazards of cooking meth

If all goes well — and that is to say, if there's no fire or explosion, because we're talking about highly volatile chemical reactions contained in nothing but a pop bottle. If that doesn't blow up or catch fire, it still produces toxic gases and byproduct, which goes into the carpet, goes into the paint.

People find meth labs in hotel rooms; they found one in a Wal-Mart bathroom, in cars. So wherever these meth labs are found, you have these bad gases and byproduct. So in a house where there are young kids, they crawl around on the carpet, they are breathing this stuff in. From that stem a whole bunch of problems for law enforcement, for foster care services, for the whole community, in effect.

On the fallout of addicts being able to cook their own meth

It's a highly risky process, and often you have meth cooks who haven't slept in days, so they shouldn't be operating a vehicle, let alone engaging in volatile chemical experiments.

And we're seeing it play out in Kentucky. I went to one of two [hospital] burn units in the state, and burn victims from meth accidents have tripled in the past few years. Their injuries are usually much worse than the average burn victim: They've got both chemical and thermal burns; they're often abusing prescription painkillers, which makes their pain management much more complicated. None of them are insured.

On the geography of "shake and bake" meth use

"Shake and bake" is concentrated in some of the poorest counties in the U.S. So you have counties with relatively few resources, and they're just completely overwhelmed with having to clean up meth lab after meth lab. ...

The highest numbers of meth labs for the past five, six years are clustered in the Midwest and also the Southeast of the U.S. So consistently Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky are in the top four.

There's a great book called Methland by Nick Reding which looks at the impact of meth in Iowa. And he talks about how meth has followed the hollowing out of rural America, so places where people are used to working hard for a living, where a lot of union jobs have left, where people have to work really hard to get by. What's really interesting is speaking to meth addicts in Kentucky: They talked about how in the early days of their use it actually made them superhuman; it made them better employees, if you will. ... You find it in places where people rely on their physical labor.

On fighting meth use by making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug

In 2006, Oregon successfully made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, and the number of meth labs in the state has fallen over 90 percent, so folks all over the country looked up and took notice. And so they said, "Look, if it can work in Oregon, why can't it work here? We clearly can't arrest our way out of the problem." And that's what happened in Kentucky back in 2009.

On pharmaceutical companies' efforts to keep states' pseudoephedrine prescription bills from passing

Over at the [Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission], which tracks lobbying spending, a secretary looks at the filings for the month, and this number jumps out at her, and she sees that over $300,000 has been spent by an organization called Consumer Healthcare Products Association. She's never heard of this group before, and in the span of three weeks they've set a new lobbying spending record. She looks into it, it turns out [CHPA] is the trade association for makers of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements representing companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and so on.

So what it turns out has happened is that they have not only hired one of the state's top lobbyists, but the bulk of that money has been spent on producing robocalls. So these recorded messages that go out to thousands of homes in Kentucky with the pharmaceutical industry's slant on the issue saying, "The government wants to take your cold and allergy medicine away. Press 9 and we'll put you through to your legislator." ...

It has happened all over the country. Since 2009, 24 states have tried to follow Oregon's lead, and 23 have failed. And this is the playbook of CHPA. They blanket the state with these robocalls, they hire the top PR and lobbying firms, and they have a remarkable track record. It's important to say that the degree to which they deploy these resources depends on the state. In my reporting, the most aggressive and highest-spending campaigns have been states with the highest number of meth labs, where presumably their chances of losing would be higher, therefore requiring a greater effort.

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