To a chemist, pseudoephedrine is "a sympathomimetic drug of the phenethylamine and amphetamine classes." To a cold or allergy sufferer, it's the stuff in Sudafed and similar remedies that unstuffs his stuffy nose.
But to somebody who wants to cook up some methamphetamine, pseudoephedrine is a main ingredient. And that's a problem.
Small-scale meth manufacturers are a menace, and not just because they make meth. The meth-making process involves a stew of chemicals - phosphorus, ether, mercury, hidrotic acid - that's potentially explosive and creates a hazard for anybody who goes near it. Cleaning up this toxic gunk after a meth lab is busted costs thousands of dollars.
Oregon, which once had one of the worst meth lab problems in the country, first tried to combat the problem by requiring pharmacies to sell decongestant pills behind the counter and limiting the quantities people could buy at one time. That approach wasn't fully effective because the meth cookers resorted to "smurfing" - going to one pharmacy after another to get hold of enough pseudoephedrine.
In 2006, Oregon became the first state in the country to make drugs containing pseudoephedrine available by prescription only. That strategy worked. Although the state's rate of meth addiction hasn't dropped dramatically - plentiful supplies of the drug still come in from California and Mexico - the number of meth lab busts has fallen from hundreds a year to a couple of dozen.
Now Sen. Ron Wyden wants to take the strategy national. He's going to introduce legislation that would make pseudoephedrine available only by prescription nationwide. It's a move that's overdue.
In 2006 Congress tried to address the meth lab problem the same way Oregon did at first, by making pharmacies put pseudoephedrine products behind the counter and keep detailed records of who bought them. That hasn't worked on the national level any better than it worked here. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, there were just 21 "meth lab clandestine laboratory incidents" in Oregon in 2008. In Washington state there were 137, in California there were 346, and in Missouri (the worst case) there were an incredible 1,471.
"There has been a resurgence of meth labs throughout the nation, with an exception - Oregon," Lincoln County District Attorney Rob Bovett said at a Portland press conference to announce Wyden's proposal. "That's why what we did here needs to be done everywhere in the United States."
Making pseudoephedrine prescription-only will inconvenience people who use the medications for cold and allergy symptoms; phenylephrine, which most drug manufacturers use as a substitute, isn't nearly as effective. But a minor inconvenience is a small price to pay for cleaning up a major law enforcement and public health problem.
"Now is the time to take Oregon's success in the war against meth to the rest of the nation and eliminate this plague once and for all," Wyden said at his press conference.
We have no illusions that this bill will eliminate the meth plague, but it could largely eliminate meth labs from America's neighborhoods. For that, Wyden deserves the GLASS SLIPPER.