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Rx for cold meds could reduce meth labs, expert says

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Rx for cold meds could reduce meth labs, expert says

Picture of Alison Knezevich
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Requiring a prescription for certain cold medicines could dramatically reduce methamphetamine production in West Virginia, a national substance-abuse expert told state lawmakers Wednesday.

In states that make people get prescriptions for pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient for cooking meth -- the number of meth labs is "dropping like a stone," said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor.

Oregon and Mississippi now require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. Kentucky lawmakers are considering it.

"If [Kentucky and West Virginia] act together, it will wipe out meth labs throughout this region," Humphreys told members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

"There are, of course, still going to be a lot of people who use meth," he said. But the number of people cooking meth at home would drop, so explosions and injuries caused by these labs would decrease, he said.

Humphreys focused his presentation mostly on prescription drug abuse, but also urged lawmakers to proactively fight meth.

"Looking down the road a little bit, I will bet you the meth problem is going to come back," he said.

A meth-lab bust costs taxpayers about $300,000, he said. That includes the cost of arrests, prosecution, incarceration, cleanup and foster care for children in the home.

A group of delegates plans to introduce pseudoephedrine legislation soon, said committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

Lawmakers also should tackle prescription drug abuse, Humphreys told the committee. He called it "a public health crisis."

West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of fatal drug overdoses. More than 90 percent of those deaths involve prescription drugs.

Humphreys recommended a comprehensive approach that includes prevention and treatment of drug abuse.

"Ultimately, the best thing we can do is prevention," he said.

Imprisoning every addict for petty crimes is not the answer to the state's drug problem, he said.

Jail time often exacerbates an addict's health problems, he said, and the addict gets caught in a cycle of going in and out of jail.

"That is an extraordinarily costly route," he said. "Everybody loses in that way of handling it."

It is difficult to persuade the public to spend more on addiction treatment, but paying now could save money in the long run, he said.

Washington state, for instance, saw Medicaid costs drop after investing in addiction treatment, he said.

"People with drug and alcohol problems use an enormous amount of health care," he said. "Every state is already spending a lot of money" on the consequences of drug abuse.

Humphreys also urged West Virginia to increase the availability of Naloxone, an antidote that reverses the symptoms of opiate overdoses.

"In a rural area, a shot of Naloxone can be the difference between a state trooper getting that person to the hospital, versus that person dying," he said.

Additionally, the state should improve its prescription monitoring program, a database that tracks all prescriptions filled in the state, he said

Many prescription drugs abused in West Virginia come from Florida. That state has lax prescription regulations, but officials there have moved to crack down on so-called pill mills.

"I think that's going to constrain the Flamingo Express, as the DEA calls it, and help this state," he said

Humphreys grew up in Morgantown and has served in drug-policy positions under the Bush and Obama administrations. He is scheduled to speak today to the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, which meets at 1 p.m.

Reach Alison Knezevich at alis...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.