Methamphetamine cooks cannot operate their labs without easy access to the cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine (PSE). This has resulted in a long-running political battle across the U.S. Many state legislators want to make PSE-containing medicines prescription-only, which as the Oregon and Mississippi experience shows, virtually eliminates a state’s meth labs. On the other side, the cold medicine industry, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year selling PSE to meth cooks, opposes such a restriction.

The industry’s response has been to propose an electronic cold medicine purchasing system called NPLEx. The idea is that if someone tries to buy too much PSE-containing cold medicine, the system would notice and block the sale.

From the point of view of stopping meth labs, the system is worthless. South Carolina put it in last year rather than create a prescription-only requirement, and saw meth lab incidents increase by 65%. Kentucky, where the NPLEx system was invented, has had it in place statewide since 2007 and seen meth lab incidents increase by 500%. Meth cooks easily thwart the system by using false ID or by hiring people to buy the cold medicine. The NPLEx system is thus worthless from the point of view of actual effectiveness.

But it is incredibly effective politically and financially. When legislators in states battered by meth have considered creating a prescription-only requirement for PSE-containing medicines, the NPLEx system has given the appearance of being an effective policy alternative. State Senator Mike Fair of South Carolina is one of many sincere legislators who now realize that they were suckered by NPLEx. The industry has fooled people in state after state with their worthless system and continues to make huge profits from supplying meth cooks; in that sense NPLEx is enormously effective.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.