EDITOR’S NOTE: Indiana legislators are currently negotiating a compromise on efforts to limit methamphetamine production through controls on pseudoephedrine and ephedrine purchases. The following opinion is submitted by Alex Brill, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former chief economist for the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means.
Communities across the country are being torn apart by methamphetamine (meth) abuse and addiction, and local legislators are taking notice, especially in Indiana.
Demand for meth remains high, and meth produced in Mexico has replaced domestic supply. In 2016, many state lawmakers are again considering legislation to address the meth problem but unfortunately are focusing on a recurring misguided solution: requiring a prescription for medications that contain pseudoephedrine (PSE), an ingredient in some cold and allergy medicines that is used in domestic meth production.
In Indiana, lawmakers are considering legislation that would require at least a pharmacy consultation before an individual could purchase a PSE-based medicine. For anyone who does not have a relationship with the pharmacist, a prescription could also be required. This type of policy would unduly burden law-abiding cold and allergy sufferers and would do nothing to address either the growing supply of meth from Mexico or the underlying causes of addiction.
As I noted in a recent study, requiring a prescription for PSE-based medicines would impose significant costs on consumers, private insurers, and state and federal government. According to Avalere Health, a national prescription-only policy would result in an estimated 1.2 million new doctor visits per year, including over 25,000 in Indiana alone. If such a policy were imposed nationwide, consumer out-of-pocket costs would jump $42.7 million, private insurer costs would spike $56 million, and Medicare and Medicaid would pay $19.5 million more. On top of this would be the indirect costs imposed on the millions of consumers who would be forced to take time off from work or school to visit a doctor for a prescription. For those who are unable to do so, their colds and allergies may go untreated, as a PSE-based medicine is the only oral decongestant that works for some people.
There is another option for states, like Indiana, that face immediate pressure to reduce domestic meth supply: the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx), which allows law enforcement to electronically track the purchase of medicines that contain PSE in real time (making it easier for them to identify potential criminal activity and intervene at the point of sale), and drug-offender block lists that ban those convicted of drug-related criminal offenses from purchasing these medicines.
Alabama and Oklahoma have both introduced NPLEx coupled with a drug offender block list and have seen 77 and 88 percent declines, respectively, in meth lab seizures. In addition, state policymakers should support federal efforts to increase drug interdiction at the U.S.-Mexico border to address the meth supply coming over the border.
More must be done to address the meth problem, but the tools being used must be shown to be effective. My recent study draws a clear conclusion: lawmakers should reject the costly, burdensome, and ineffective strategy of requiring prescriptions or a pharmacy consult for PSE-based medicines. Instead, our leaders should work to reduce the supply of illicit drugs from Mexico and curb the demand by those in our country suffering from addiction.