Of all the various parties trying to put an end to the proliferation of meth labs in Spokane and cities across the country, it might come as a surprise that Pfizer -- the company that brought you Viagra -- might actually do it.
Last December, the pharmaceutical juggernaut, in a surprise turnabout spurred by increasing pressure from state governments and law enforcement agencies, announced it would rejigger the recipes for its cold medicines. Specifically, it announced plans to delete the active ingredient pseudoephedrine, one of the chief ingredients needed to produce methamphetamine. The company said it would swap pseudo for phenylephrine, a similar decongestant drug that's nearly impossible to turn into meth.
The announcement was heralded by some as the death knell for home meth labs, which many estimate to produce 30 percent of the meth used in the United States (the rest comes, primarily, from "superlabs" in Mexico) and which costs cities and states millions of dollars per year in enforcement, prosecution and cleanup. Meth thrives in cities like Spokane because all the ingredients needed to produce it are cheap and readily available. But if meth cooks can't pop in to Rosauers for a few boxes of pseudo-heavy Sudafed, they're going to have a harder time.
After Pfizer announced that it would have phenylephrine-based versions of all its medications on the shelves by next January, other drug companies began to follow suit. Leiner Health Products, which supplies generic drugs for chain retailers like Costco and Target, started shipping out phenylephrine-based cold medicines in June. India's Malladi Drugs, one of the world's leading producers of pseudoephedrine, has begun a shift toward phenylephrine, and Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim, the world's leader in phenylephrine production, already claims it can pump out enough of the stuff to replace America's entire supply of pseudoephedrine by 2006. A report in Portland's Oregonian last month predicted that within two years, the newer, safer cold medicines would dominate the U.S. marketplace.
So, is this the end of the road for meth labs in the Inland Northwest?
Granted, finished meth from those Mexican superlabs is still going to be readily available; the drug companies' decision isn't likely to change that. But cooperation between state agencies and medicine retailers in Spokane to make pseudo-based drugs harder to get has already put a dent in the home lab industry. Since retailers started voluntarily moving the drugs behind the counter, the county has seen a drastic reduction in home lab seizures -- from 189 in 2002 to 91 in 2003 to 42 in 2004, reports Regional Meth Prevention Coordinator Marcia Via.
When a new law requiring all retailers and pharmacists in Washington to put those drugs behind the counter kicks in come October, that number will likely shrink even further. If a federal law currently being mulled over in Congress is approved (thus closing the "just-go-to-Idaho-for-your-drugs" loophole), it should shrink even further. Meanwhile, the drug companies will be putting out less and less of the pseudo drugs and more of the phenylephrine drugs.
"Most of our cooks are going to throw in the towel," guesses Via, considering the decreasing supplies of pseudoephedrine and the increasing penalties for producing meth at home. Lt. Rick VanLeuven, with the Spokane County sheriff's department, points out that first-time manufacturers tend to get 78 months in jail, whereas the charge for possession and delivery is only about 24.
However, there are a few catches. To make up for the lack of available pseudoephedrine in the United States, traffickers in Mexico could start shipping more of the raw ingredient in addition to the finished drug, so that cooks could continue to make it themselves. Observers in Washington have already seen it come in from Mexico via British Columbia.
And, Via adds, there's no limit to a junkie's creativity. She notes that meth producers used to steal anhydrous ammonia from farms and fields to make the drug, but when ammonia makers developed a chemical lock that prevented the ammonia from being turned into meth, meth-heads came up with an end-around, developing a way to make meth with just fertilizer and dry ice.
The decision by Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies to cut down on pseudoephedrine could go a long way toward curbing home meth lab production, especially when coupled with cooperation from retailers and the government. But with millions of addicts hooked on the drug, and lots of people making lots of money providing it to them, the fight isn't nearly over.