Ten Miles Square


February 06, 2012 10:16 AM Cold Medicine Sales Tracking to Reduce Meth Labs: Worthless and Effective

By Keith Humphreys

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 is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


  • Crissa on February 24, 2012 4:31 PM:

    Is there any evidence that even a prescription-only law has any effect on meth usage?

  • Keith Humphreys on February 25, 2012 7:16 PM:

    Crissa: Meth usage goes down by about one third after these laws pass, but that isn't the central purpose of the laws. They are there to reduce meth labs, when they do to a far more dramatic extent.

  • Mark L on February 26, 2012 10:34 PM:

    I find phenylephrine nearly ineffective when I have a cold or allergies. It's a little galling to think I may soon need a prescription to purchase psuedoephedrine containing medications since there are handful of people using it to cook meth.

  • Nigil Fleming on March 01, 2012 10:54 PM:

    Senate Bill 3, like the earlier failed Senate Bill 50, is another effort to force Kentuckians to get a prescription for cold medicine. Other reports have the cost shift of making cold medicine a prescription at over a quarter of a billion dollars!
    But letís ignore the money.
    SB3 gets tangled up with unrealistic restrictions. There is a monthly limit of 3.6 grams with an annual limit of 15 grams. The misguided attempt to limit PSE to those misusing a legal product easily reaches into the average family.
    But letís ignore punishing the wrong people.
    The American Conservative Union (ACU) has weighed in. They see this as a freedom issue. Rightfully theyíre apprehensive of the states mission creep into other medical products. Today itís cold tablets, tomorrow itíll be our cough medicine. Naturally, itíll be for our own good. Thankfully, the conservatives are watching.
    But letís ignore the ACU.
    Mom buys some Claritin 24D for herself and one of her children. They have allergies. It helps. But SB3 has limited those two to a weeksí worth of relief. The problem is there are 4 weeks in a month. Since SB3 has a max annual limit of 15 grams, that limit would be reached in about 4 months. What about May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December? What about the other 3 weeks in the month the state doesnít ďallowĒ them to buy a legal product?
    But letís ignore the limits.
    According to the U.S. Justice Departmentís National Drug Intelligence Centerís 2010 threat assessment, Mexico is once again the ďprimary source of methamphetamineĒ in the U.S. Thatís after Mexico banned the sale of all pseudoephedrine (PSE) in 2008. A complete ban of PSE in Mexico produced the #1 threat of meth in the U.S. within two years.
    But letís ignore the fact that a total ban of PSE produced the #1 meth threat.
    Anyone notice how many contortions we need to preform to try to force SB3 to work?
    But itís really quite simple. Arrest those that misuse the cold medicine and leave us law abiding Kentuckians alone.
    Save us a quarter of a billion dollars.
    Punish the right people.
    Leave our freedoms alone.
    Get realistic about the purchasing limits.
    Keep the meth offender registry blocking list.
    Quit ignoring the obvious and address the actual problem. The problem is not the legal FDA approved cold medicine, itís how itís being misused.