A Technological Fix for Meth Labs?

Again this year, the cold medicine industry was the number one lobbyist in all the state legislatures that considered making pseudoephedrine-containing products available by prescription only. They won in every state, which is not surprising given that the Citizens United decision makes them even more powerful than they were in prior years. Legislators who wanted to set a prescription requirement to obtain the 15 cold medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine were simply outgunned by the financial might of the industry. Their states will again be ravaged by meth labs this year, and the industry will again pocket hundreds of millions of dollars by selling their products to meth cooks.

However, a new cold medication, trade name Tarex, may change the equation. Tarex contains pseudoephedrine (PSE) but its manufacturer has created a chemical lock that apparently prevents the chemical’s ready removal from the medicine. If the initial test results hold up, state legislatures can make all PSE-containing medications other than Tarex prescription only, giving those consumers who want it a PSE-containing cold medication while also dramatically curtailing meth labs.

Will it work? The history of drug problems does include some notable successes of this sort. The epidemic of temazepam injection in the UK was brought under control by reformulating the medication as a solid tablet rather than as a gel cap. Other “abuse-resistant” medications have bombed however, when creative addicts discovered how to crack the formula and spread the answer to their fellows (the Internet makes this process extraordinarily rapid).

If Tarex does indeed resist the PSE-extraction efforts of meth users, there is some deeply satisfying political theater to come. The cold medicine’s financial interests are not defended only by professional lobbyists. It also funds — and in some cases entirely created — a phalanx of patient advocacy organizations, law enforcement groups and individual experts who give the “disinterested” advice to legislatures that prescription-only PSE is a bad idea. Their public stance is that they just want a reasonable balance struck between relief for allergy sufferers and the fight against meth labs, what could be wrong with that?

Those people are now crapping their pants.

If effective, Tarex would provide exactly what they have been publicly suggesting is the right solution. But the medication’s manufacturer is not among the cold medicine giants who fund all these shills. If legislators take these front groups’ at their word and make Tarex available instead of the current PSE-containing cold medications, the gravy train they have been riding will stop dead. What to do?

My prediction: The shills will continue to express “real concerns” about Tarex. Industry-supported patient advocacy groups will say that Tarex doesn’t give them relief from congestion. Industry-bankrolled law enforcement groups will say that, in their expert judgment, Tarex really can be used to make meth, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This will continue right up to the day when one of the big cold medicine companies buys Tarex’s manufacturer. And then, having thought about it, all those upstanding folks will, doggone it, have a deeply felt change of heart.

[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.