According to Carson City’s District Attorney Neil Rombardo, the answer is cutting off the supply of ingredients used to manufacture the drug.
Rombardo is pushing a bill in the state Senate that would require a prescription for certain cold and allergy medicines containing substances used to make meth. Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Washoe County District 1, requires products containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine to be dispensed by prescription only unless the product is formulated to prevent conversion into methamphetamine.
Reportedly used by about 12 percent of Nevada high school seniors, methamphetamine is a stimulant that increases alertness and energy, is highly addictive and, in high doses, causes euphoria. It is ingested several ways, including smoking, injection and in pill or tablet form.
“Meth can only be made with these three substances,” Rombardo explained.
Currently, products containing these substances can be purchased over the counter from pharmacies. An identification card and signature is required, and the amount of drugs that can be purchased at one time is limited.
The problem with the current system is there is no way to track purchases made by one customer at more than one pharmacy, Rombardo said. Customers purchasing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine for meth production are going from store to store and buying the maximum amount of the substances allowed at each location.
“We call this ‘smurfing,’ when they go from store to store to store,” Rombardo said. “Smurfing has actually become an industry.”
Rombardo said people who are smurfing in Nevada are buying the ingredients for meth and then either sending the substances to large meth labs in California for production or making the drug in their own homes.
While there are hundreds of “recipes” for producing meth, two basic methods are used. The drug can either be “cooked” in a lab using a traditional method, or meth can be made in the drug user’s home using a two-liter soda bottle, Rombardo said, which is very dangerous to the person making the drug.
“You can be blown up,” Rombardo said, regardless of which cooking method is used.
According to an Associated Press article regarding the “shake-and-bake” method of producing meth in a soda bottle, unlike the traditional cooking method, the bottle method does not require a flame. A handful of cold pills are crushed, combined with some common household chemicals and then shaken in a soda bottle to create a volatile chemical reaction that produces one of the world’s most addictive drugs.
“Using the new formula, batches of meth are much smaller but just as dangerous as the old system,” the AP story states, “which sometimes produces powerful explosions, touches off intense fires and releases drug ingredients that must be handled as toxic waste.”
“If there is any oxygen at all in the bottle, it has a propensity to make a giant fireball,” Sgt. Jason Clark of the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control told the AP. “You’re not dealing with rocket scientists here, anyway. If they get unlucky at all, it can have a very devastating reaction.”
Aside from the danger to the person cooking the meth, production of the drug has negative effects on the environment, Rombardo said. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates between five and six pounds of highly toxic waste is generated for each pound of meth produced.
“When people make it, especially in a one-pot system,” Rombardo said, “toxic chemicals are emitted into the environment.”
Rombardo said drug companies that manufacture cold and allergy medications containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine also manufacture drugs that do not contain the three substances, and are just as effective in treating cold and allergy symptoms. Since effective alternative over-the-counter medicines are available for treating colds and allergies, Rombardo said he sees no reason to keep selling medicines that contain substances meth producers need to make the illegal drug.
“Sudafed and anything you have to go to the pharmacy and sign the log book for doesn’t actually cure anything,” Rombardo said. “It just treats the symptoms.”
Whether cold and allergy medicines containing ingredients such as phenylephrine, an alternative to pseudoephedrine and is used in Sudafed PE, are as effective in treating cold and allergy symptoms as regular Sudafed with pseudoephedrine varies from patient to patient.
“For most people it probably works just as well,” said Dr. Frank Archer of Salem, Utah. “Some (medicines) work better for some and some work better for others. That’s why you have so many different kinds of cold medicines.”
Archer added that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it intends to remove certain unapproved prescription cough, cold and allergy drug products from the U.S. market. That list includes products containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine, along with products that contain alternative ingredients.
“Whether Nevada passes this legislation or not,” Archer said, “just as a sidenote, the FDA is talking about not approving any of the combination preparation cold medicines because they have never undergone all the studies of other FDA-approved drugs.”
On March 2, the FDA issued a statement that said many health care providers are unaware of the unapproved status of drugs and have continued to unknowingly prescribe them because the drugs’ labels do not disclose that they lack FDA approval. The full statement can be viewed online at www.fda.gov.
Methamphetamines being produced using ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine are up to 99 percent potent, Rombardo said, which means the drug is more dangerous than ever. Earlier forms of the drug manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s, which were commonly known as P2P and “crank,” were only 30 to 50 percent potent.
“It’s the highest, purest form of the drug,” he said, adding Nevada consistently ranks three times higher than the national average in residents being treated for meth use.
“We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nevada in drug courts,” Rombardo said.
Of course, the key to this piece of legislation proving successful is for all states to pass similar legislation, he said.
“Oregon and Mississippi already passed this law,” Rombardo said, and neighboring states have seen an increase in smurfing activity. “Louisiana has seen a 450 percent increase in smurfing.”
Twelve percent of Nevada’s 12th grade students report using meth, Rombardo said, compared to the national average of 4 percent. By cutting off the supply of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine to meth producers, proponents of SB203 hope to see those numbers go down.
“It’s tragic,” Rombardo said. “From my perspective, the best way to handle this is to cut off the domestic supply.”