Since the key ingredient needed to make meth can be purchased at any drugstore, officials in Franklin County have taken steps to make ephedrine products available by prescription only.
The cities of Winchester, Cowan and Decherd have all passed ordinances mandating the sale of cold medicine containing ephedrine to require a prescription. Officials in those cities are now encouraging other municipalities in Tennessee to do the same.
“I think everyone is waiting to see if this will hold up in court,” said McMinnville Police Chief Bryan Denton. “The challenge will be that municipalities don’t have the authority to determine which drugs should be available by prescription only. We’re certainly monitoring this situation. We’ve been told there will be a huge upheaval.”
The Tennessee General Assembly considered making ephedrine/ pseudoephedrine a controlled substance in 2012, but eventually buckled under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. Tennessee lawmakers instead created a real-time database to monitor ephedrine purchases. With efforts failing at the state level, officials in Franklin County decided to act locally.
Denton was among a number of law enforcement officials who attended a recent meeting in Winchester to discuss the ordinances passed in the three Franklin County municipalities. Denton says he is in favor of requiring a prescription to buy ephedrine products.
“Where this has been done in other states it’s been shown it will cut down on the number of meth labs substantially,” said Denton. “There are over 100 products that do the same thing as ephedrine. One statistic they told us was only 8 percent of the population uses ephedrine for legitimate purposes.”
According to the Tennessee Meth Task Force, there are 157 products that reduce cold and allergy symptoms the same way ephedrine does. However, ephedrine is the only active ingredient that can be made into meth.
Like Denton, Sheriff Jackie Matheny firmly supports requiring a prescription for ephedrine/ pseudoephedrine.
“I think it would be overwhelmingly accepted by people here,” said Matheny. “If you look at meth labs, they affect a lot of people in this community, not just the users. There’s the pollution, the dangerous chemicals, the drug addictions and what that does to families, the clean-up costs. If we could do away with all that, we would be much better off.”
According to information presented at the recent meeting in Winchester, Tennessee ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2012 for number of meth labs found by law enforcement with 1,811. This was a 14 percent increase from the year before.
The Tennessee Meth Task Force says the state is on pace for more than 2,000 meth labs in 2013. With an estimated clean-up cost of $5,000 to $25,000, this represents a cost of $10 million to $50 million.
Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, have made ephedrine/ pseudoephedrine a controlled substance requiring a doctor’s prescription. Oregon has seen its number of meth labs drop from 584 in 2001 to just 12 meth labs after ephedrine became controlled in 2008.
Mississippi passed its law in 2010 and has seen a 70 percent reduction in meth labs. More significantly, Mississippi has seen an 82 percent reduction in the number of children removed from meth homes and placed in the state’s foster care system.
The pharmaceutical industry wants to keep ephedrine available without a prescription because it’s so profitable. Ephedrine products fly off store shelves because they can be made into meth, not because of their allergy relief.
The Tennessee Meth Task Force says over 50 percent of the ephedrine sold in this state last year was purchased by people who had prior arrests for meth offenses, had exceeded the legal limit for the drug, or had been identified by law enforcement as being at a meth lab.
Matheny says he favors action at the statewide level, but a local ordinance would be better than nothing.
“If all communities don’t do it, they could just go across county lines,” said Matheny, “but at least it would be a start.”