NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Making Cold Medicine Prescription-Only Did Not Reduce Meth Use

February 29, 2012

In 2005, the state legislature of Oregon passed a new law requiring that pseudoephedrine be bought only by consumers with a prescription.  This, lawmakers argued, would reduce the production of methamphetamine (meth) in the state because pseudoephedrine is a necessary ingredient in that process, say Chris Stomberg, a partner, and Arun Sharma, a principal, in the Antitrust and Competition, and Healthcare practices at Bates White, LLC.

Seven years later, supporters of the policy point to key measures of crime and drug usage to suggest that the law has been very successful.  However, each such purported benefit is misleading.

  • Supporters of the law point out that the number of meth lab incidents in Oregon declined from 467 in 2004 to 12 in 2010 -- a decline of more than 90 percent.
  • However, most of this decline occurred before the prescription-only law became effective in 2006, by which time the number of incidents already had fallen to 50.
  • Furthermore, neighboring states that do not have the legal restriction are seeing a similar trend: the number of methamphetamine lab incidents in the state of Washington, for example, declined by more than 90 percent between 2004 and 2010.
  • In 2010, the number of meth incidents per million of population was comparable in Oregon, Washington and California.

Advocates of the restriction do not solely rely upon the argument that the policy reduces the manufacture of meth within state borders.  They also submit that it has reduced addictive behavior and popular usage of the drug -- a point they say is captured in crime statistics.

  • The number of methamphetamine admissions to substance abuse centers in Oregon declined about 23 percent between 2006 and 2009.
  • This finding is corroborated by the federal government's Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program, which analyzed usage patterns in Portland, Oregon.
  • However, Oregon's decline in methamphetamine usage is consistent with a very similar decline in other states in the region (29 percent in California and 20 percent in Washington) and also more generally in the United States (23 percent).

These findings strongly suggest that meth-use reductions are attributable to broader trends and cannot be claimed by the effects of the Oregon law.

Source: Chris Stomberg and Arun Sharma, "Making Cold Medicine RX Only Did Not Reduce Meth Use," Cascade Policy Institute, February 2012.

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