We've shut down the meth labs; now, let's focus on traffickers

By Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego). Greg is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee - and a candidate for Attorney General. Learn more at VoteMac.com.

Just four years ago, home meth labs were one of the biggest public safety threats we faced in Oregon. All across the state, addicts were cooking meth in rental houses and apartments, contaminating the structures and destroying communities. Neighbors watched helplessly as neglected children wandered the streets while their addicted parents cooked, sold, and consumed meth. And property values dropped because of illegal drug traffic.

At the time, Oregon law enforcement was busting over 40 home labs per month. But that wasn't really solving the problem, because new labs would immediately replace the ones that were shut down. We had to cut off the source.

Today, we can celebrate the progress we've made. But the job of eradicating meth isn't done. We have to keep the pressure on.

The progress came because in 2005 I joined with three other Judiciary Committee colleagues and Governor Kulongoski to pass a first-in-the-nation law that has virtually shut down home meth labs inside the state. The law bans over-the-counter sales of pseudo-ephedrine, the key ingredient used to make meth.

Until then, addicts were buying or stealing off store shelves various cold and allergy remedies that use pseudo-ephedrine as a decongestant.

Some urged us to enact long mandatory prison sentences for cooking meth, following the approach of the federal War on Drugs. But no one I know thinks the feds are winning the War on Drugs. We needed a better solution - prevention, not just more prisons.

The state had already placed pseudo-ephedrine behind store counters months earlier. But then the four of us went "smurfing," each buying the maximum legal amount of pseudo-ephedrine in several stores near the Capitol. In about an hour we bought enough to keep a meth addict going for a couple of months, proving that behind-the-counter alone was not enough.

So we proposed the toughest law in the country, requiring a doctor's prescription to buy pseudo-ephedrine. Big drug companies, fearing a loss of sales, sent lobbyists to Oregon to try to stop it. But we stood our ground and the law was passed. Our meth law also funded drug courts, which supervise addicted offenders so they get clean and stay clean, and authorized new drug treatment programs inside the state prison system.

The result has been dramatic. Without access to pseudo-ephedrine, local meth labs disappeared. In 2007, Oregon law enforcement found just 18 home labs (down from 448 in 2004).

But as I said, the job's not done. Neighborhoods are safer because local meth labs have been shut down. But Oregon still has a big meth problem.

Now it's being brought in from labs in other states and in Mexico, some big and some small. So we need to do three things:

First, local prevention. We must continue to fund drug courts and provide treatment to addicted offenders.

Second, apply Oregon's innovations at the national level. Requiring prescriptions for pseudo-ephedrine works. The federal government should follow our approach, which would shut down the vast majority of the home labs, many of which are currently supplying addicts in Oregon. It also should restrict imports of pseudo-ephedrine from Asia because too much of it ends up cooked into meth.

Finally, we need to step up enforcement against big traffickers from Mexico. The Oregon State Police should be given more resources to go after drug operations that move around the state when chased by local police.

We're making progress against meth. But there's still a lot more to be done.

Comments

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)
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    The crackdown on pseudo-ephedrine has been a success, but not an unqualified one. Meth remains as accessible as ever on the street, although the environmental and social damage from meth labs has certainly decreased. Meth is now primarily run by Mexican organized crime. They cook it up in superlabs in Mexico.

    I don't mean to belittle the importance of local law enforcement, but the truth is that we've rarely had much luck interdicting a substantial quantity of meth. The price remains relatively stable, which is the ultimate measure of success or failure for drug interdiction. I tend to agree with Mac that the most productive expenditure of funds on the state level is on mandatory rehab for offenders. A shocking number of drug offenders are triaged as "not meeting treatment priorities" and thus do not receive (nor apparently seek) any treatment.

    Drug courts are good, but have very limited capacity. Essentially, they mostly get folks for whom they are the last stop before prison, rather than the first offenders they should be taking. Frankly, a guy who's on his third bust should be going to prison, not drug court. He's the guy who's had the chances and blown them. The first timers are the ones we can still realistically save.

    The interesting issue is where the precursors come from before they go into Mexico. The Mexican labs aren't making this stuff from locally available materials - they're cooking it from pharmaceutical precursors. Germany, India, and China apparently send these precursors far in excess of the local demand in Mexico. In Oregon, we can focus on organized crime, but the real payoff would be on the federal level, if we threatened to start hitting the supplier companies with tariffs if they do not stop overexporting to Mexico.

  • verasoie (unverified)
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    Rep. Macpherson,

    Thanks for your post. You were my Rep. when I lived in SW PDX (I'm now in NE) and I was very pleased with your work and fully support your candidacy.

    If I can make one suggestion, could you discuss the possibility of stopping the metal trafficking that is a scourge in Oregon (and throughout the country) that feeds directly into meth habits? By "metal trafficking," I mean scrap metal, including copper wires, statues, etc. that are stolen by thieves and then sold to scrap metal dealers for instant cash. It's a huge problem, as many schools, farms, and other properties have been severely affected by having parts of their property destroyed, often at replacement costs of thousands of dollars, so that thieves can make off with as little as hundreds or tens of dollars of scrap metal.

    A simple solution that I've seen elsewhere, or at least heard of, is to institute a waiting period of 15 or 30 days from when scrap metal can be redeemed. Disallowing cash transactions and requiring photo ID (and appropriate auditing, etc.) would be big obstacles for thieves to overcome. Perhaps also placing stricter requirements on what can be scrapped, i.e. documentation for sources of copper wiring, etc.

    Thanks for addressing this.

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    Greg, I salute your efforts, mostly because of the hundreds of children who are now not getting out of bed in a haze of toxic chemicals cooking in the kitchen, but,

    What Marty said and additional treatment is needed too, but until early education efforts are revised away from ridiculous and non-credible pleading in junior high assembly halls, I doubt that this problem, which has been pretty widespread through several generations dating back to at least the '70s

  • A. Rab. (unverified)
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    I have two questions:

    1. How can the Oregon Attorney General get the entire country to adopt Oregon’s policies for pseudo-ephedrine? What will Macpherson do if he cannot make Congress and the President adopt his plan?

    2. Does he have a plan for meth that keeps people from ending up in the criminal justice system? Frankly, he misses the point with drug courts. Drug courts are important and need to be funded, but a major problem is that people cannot get treatment until they have become involved in the system. What we need is treatment options for people before they are arrested and placed in the system. However, a lack of funding from the state and local government (and little chance of Bush helping out) makes treatment almost unattainable for the poor.

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    Kudos for an approach that has indeed mostly eradicated meth labs in Oregon. (although I think the governor really was the spearhead on this effort).

    But I'm disappointed that instead of focusing on state efforts like IMPROVING treatment--not just "continuing to fund it"--so much time was spent on, as A. Rab notes, things beyond the AG's general purview.

    This is where I find disappointment. Saying "we need to fund treatment programs" is good, but it's essentially empty rhetoric. Shouldn't we ADD funds, or change the nature of the treatment system, or--here's an idea from Rebooting Democracy--turn Wapato into a detox/rehab/detention facility for users, separate from other criminals?

    The prescription-only concept was a bold, aggressive, creative step. I applaud that kind of thinking. It made a decision about priorities--in this case, protecting children and innocent neighbors--and moved forward to address them. I don't see that here, unfortunately.

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    Dang, forgot to include this: Kroger's statements at the RD08 debate should be the focus: Oregon is 45th in drug treatment efficacy, 49th in youth treatment (arguably the most important). I'm not sure what the markers for those statistics are, but if they represent an accurate picture of the job we're doing in this state, how to fix that should have nearly all Macpherson should have been talking about in this column.

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    I have to echo the disappointment of a couple posters about the lack of emphasis on treatment. Continuing the status quo is not nearly enough. While making an effort to cut down on trafficking is certainly important, if the War on Drugs has taught us anything, it's that focussing on supply alone is hopelessly ineffective. Without adequately addressing demand (which clearly we are not doing) all the supply crackdowns in the world won't prove effective.

  • rblackwe (unverified)
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    There were some efforts in the 2007 session to deal with the metal problem. HB 3026 prohibits scrap metal dealers from accepting metal without maintaining a record of who sold them the scrap.

  • Justin (unverified)
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    While Macpherson makes a point to focus on prevention and the behind-the-counter programs, it is essential to focus on treatment and high-level enforcement in Oregon, because the supply will still exist, regardless of how difficult it seems to procure the ingredients that comprise Meth.

    John Kroger has repeatedly pointed out that Oregon is second to last in the United States for the funding of treatment programs for 18-25 year olds and 45th in the nation in terms of accessibility for these treatment programs. This is abysmal and needs immediate revamping. The demand for Meth needs to be stopped through treatment, education, and high-level enforcement, not just by attempting to end the supply.

    Kroger's treatment plan will focus on proven strategies like better education in schools and treatment for young adults, for parents, and for every inmate in prison who needs it. This multi-pronged approach is the only way to curb the demand for Meth and ending the demand is the key to ending Oregon's Meth crisis. For every dollar invested in treatment, the state will save nearly six dollars by precipitously dropping the overall crime and incarceration rates. Locking people up did not work to halt the Crack cocaine epidemic and it will not curb Meth's deleterious effects in our state.

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    Posted by: torridjoe | Jan 26, 2008 12:06:53 PM

    Ditto.

  • MCT (unverified)
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    I don't think we will solve the meth problem unless there is a way to sever all conections some of our citizens (and non-citizens) have with Mexico.

  • Justin (unverified)
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    Macpherson writes about supplying the Oregon State Police with more financing, yet this is only a small piece of the puzzle. John Kroger's focus will be to work with the legislature and with treatment experts, police chiefs, district attorneys, and sheriffs to craft a new drug treatment and prevention program for Oregon. Kroger will provide enforcement agencies with more investigative support and use the district attorney’s assistance program to help convict big dealers and send them to prison. The solution is not to lock up addicts, because this only hurts their lives and leads to more violence and addiction issues in the future.

    These enforcement officials will trust Kroger’s treatment plan, because as a former federal prosecutor, he has experience at working with high-level enforcement officials to stop dangerous criminals. Kroger will reorganize and rebuild the Attorney General’s organized crime section and get that unit focused on investigating and prosecuting the drug cartels. Kroger promises to sit down with enforcement officials when he becomes Attorney General and listen to their concerns, while reassuring them that ending the Meth epidemic is one of his top priorities.

    The key to solving the Meth epidemic is to focus on both supply and demand. Over the counter policies can only do so much, because if the demand is not curtailed, the suppliers will find a way to get their product to addicts. Kroger’s plan is to focus on treatment and education, which will diminish the demand side of the problem. Supplying enforcement agencies with more investigative ability and promising cooperation from the Attorney General’s office can halt the supply. Kroger is the only candidate with a realistic and comprehensive plan to end the scourge of the Meth epidemic.

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    Getting other states to put medicine with pseudo-ephedrine behind the counter or available only with a prescription isn't such a big deal since drug companies have changed the formula in their drugs and most no longer contain pseudo-ephedrine. Maybe they're only selling those reformulated meds here, I don't know since it's been a few years since I've had the money to visit Texas. If that's the case, then there needs to be a push for the reformulated meds to be available everywhere - much better than making it extremely difficult for the poor to be able to get medicine for their cold.

    Last time I was at the store to purchase cold medicine, I can't remember seeing a single one that wasn't actually on the shelves. That wasn't the case back when they were behind the counter - many times I had to go to multiple stores to get medicine because with only a small cabinet to lock all their stuff in, many stores started only carrying a very small stock of cold meds.

    The switch away from pseudo-ephedrine happened before the law requiring a prescription took place. I remember because I was at the store and surprised to see the meds back on the shelf. I went over and looked at them and found they'd been reformulated.

    Next time I'm at the store I'll check, but I'm pretty sure when I bought cold meds about 2 weeks ago that I didn't see one not on the shelf. Although I do remember commercials for Claritin bragging that they hadn't reformulated their product and that it was as strong as ever - and found behind the pharmacy counter. Not mention of a prescription needed (and this was a commercial on recently, well after the law took effect).

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    it should be said that from why I hear from some folks, the new formulation isn't as effective.

    Those Claritin ads bug me. They're essentially bragging about not being a good corporate citizen.

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    My understanding is that domestic meth production is pocket change compared to the quantities being shipped into Oregon from Mexico. If true then nobody ought to realistically expect local measures restricting cold medicines to do more than put a modest dent in the supply side of the equation.

    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try or that we should just give up in futility! But we ought not BS ourselves about what we can accomplish on the supply side of the epidemic. Treatment and/or jail is going to have to take primacy because dealing with the demand side of the problem is simply more within our power to tackle.

  • genop (unverified)
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    Cudos. Keep up the great work on the meth problem, the approach seems reasonable given the economics involved. At some point, individuals must be accountable for their addictions, and suffer the consequences. Government cannot, nor should it, be expected to expend untold sums on treatment. Drug courts using a holistic approach are of great benefit to reduce the impact, and focussed treatment should be administered in prison. Resources for parents and educational programs help provide tools for prevention. Beyond these efforts comes individual responsibility. Bottom line, until the addict steps up, there is no hope for salvation.

  • Andy (unverified)
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    I agree with the comments that Oregon's meth problem can only be solved by focusing on treatment and then cracking down on out of state traffickers. I do not know if Macpherson is the best candidate for A.G. I have checked out his stance and Kroger's and I feel that as a former federal prosecutor, Kroger will actually be able to get results in the state. Kroger seems to have a more comprehensive approach to this problem, and I do think it is an epidemic in this state. Macpherson may be a fine legislator, but I do not think he is deserving of being Oregon's next Attorney General. Kroger can actually provide much needed results.

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    torridjoe:

    I also didn't like that their commercial never mentioned needing a prescription to get the medicine. It just says it is behind the counter.

    I hadn't noticed much difference in the effectiveness of the two different formulas. I finished up my cold meds that still had the old formula and then started taking the new formula when I ran out. Neither seemed to work any better than the other.

    I think treatment goes a long way to help stop (or at least cut down) the drug epidemic we're having. An addicted person costs us a lot - the crimes they commit, loss in property and damages (look at those statues that were worth tens of thousands that were cut up), the kids they aren't taking care of, court time, time in jail, etc. It would be a lot better for the person, their family, and society if they got treatment.

    Many of these people can't afford the treatment themselves, but that treatment is cheaper to society than all the problems they cause between now and when they die of an overdose, being shot, etc.

  • Hawthorne (unverified)
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    Who is the media consultant powering Mac's campaign? Just wondering...

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    genop--people need to be held accountable for being sick?

  • John Q. Public (unverified)
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    Two years ago, Kulo, Mac, Kro, and a lot of mainly white, upper-middle class, pols explicitly advanced a values proposition in which the high social cost of transforming the meth problem into an "organized crime" crisis was less than that of far wiser solutions to a homegrown problem. They did so because as Blue Oregon commentators demonstate, Oregon is a relatively homogeneous state, and that distorted value proposition therefore played well politically regardless of party affiilation.

    Now he and Kroger, vague and meaningless mumblings about treatment and prevention notwithstanding, are both actually running on a traditional contemporary Republican tactic of fundamentally playing the fear card that we have to fight and thereby escalate the "drug war". Of course, they are also hooking into nativism against brown-skinned criminals, which will pull in a few more critical votes, albeit in that polite, elistist, liberal way of their political base, Anybody know where these two stand on things like RealID, no knock search-warrants, "relaxed" search-and-seizure, and increased cooperation with militarized federal drug enforcement --- of course just because, wink, wink, they will be going after "those people" who diminish your quality-of-life?

    It was Republicans starting with Nixon, with a lot of help from the kind of venal Democrats one finds in the NW, who created the whole framing of "drug war" purely for domestical political purposes. So it's fitting that these two empty politicians have in truth made this the key issue in their campaign for an office that has been increasingly politicized by the legislature through bipartisan effort over the last decade.

    It is really disgusting that all we care to demand in Oregon are three really unworthy candidates like Mannix, Macpherson, and Kroger for A.G.

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    Who is the media consultant powering Mac's campaign?

    If you're asking about the internet strategy, that's me. But I'm not a media consultant.

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)
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    Just FYI, Claritin itself cannot be used as a precursor for meth. It doesn't contain pseudo-ephedrine. Its active ingredient is loratadine. Claritin-D does contain pseudo-ephedrine along with loratadine, but it's now apparently behind the counter. Some of the reformulations contain phenylphrine, which has the same effect as pseuo-ephedrine, but cannot easily be used to make meth. Some people complain that phenylphrine doesn't work as well, but the evidence suggests that it does.

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    Some people complain that phenylphrine doesn't work as well, but the evidence suggests that it does.

    I'd be interested in that evidence. At least in my case there's a world of difference. Of course, I have to take psuedoephedrine in very small quantities and only when I'm seriously drippy or it dries the relevant tissues out to the point where the cure is worse than the disease. For me there's a distinct upside to the fact that I find the new stuff significantly less potent.

    I'd guess that the variation is considerably different from one person to another.

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    When I was in England on business in October I had a little headcold and one day went to Tesco (kinda like Fred Meyer) to look for something to take for it. They still sell pseudoephedrine over the counter (but behind the counter) over there. I bought some and took it and was reminded just how much better it is than this crap they sell to us now.

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    So, yep, even here on Blue Oregon it's apparent that this is yet another huge societal problem that can only be addressed in a bi-polar way.

    The solution to the Meth Epidemic is either treatment or interdiction, or both.

    There are no other data points worth considering.

    Creating and informed population equipped to make rational decisions regarding the use of all of the variety of mind and metabolic affecting substances from coffee to alchohol, is not even worth considering, yet to me it would be the most hopeful indicator of a rational society.

    Rock on kids. Given the framework that you all are willing to consider, I predict additional decades of pyrric victories, more draconian sentencing, billions more dollars poured down various theoretical rat holes, and much pious chest thumping.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Pat Ryan brings up a good point. This issue isn't either or. Early intervention in the form of meaningful education is one such approach. It isn't the ONLY approach. For some really interesting approaches check out the Southern Oregon Meth Project.

    Unfortunately, treatment is not effective. The revidivism rate of math addicts is northward of 90%. Education, in step with mandatory life sentances for trafickers would be a good next step. Of course, contol of the borders would be a good step as well.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    The war on drugs approach that reflects so well small-minded American puritanism dooms our attempts to deal with extremely dangerous but seductive drugs like meth. It is very difficult to make young people understand how nasty the stuff is when they hear the same level of condemnation of every illegal drug. If they have already smoked a few doobies and made it to school the next day, why should they take warnings about meth seriously?

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)
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    GAO looked into the allegation that phenylephrine is less effective than pseudoephedrine. Here's the link... http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20060922172818-85162.pdf

    That being said, drug interactions will vary with an individual, so I certainly wouldn't make a claim about any particular individual's reactions. The evidence just seems to be that overall there's not much difference.

    The public policy decision was really that the convenience of certain individuals did not override the very real public safety concerns with pseudo. You can still get pseudo, after all, you just have to have a prescription (or go over the border, I guess).

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