- - Friday, July 11, 2014

As a former U.S. House speaker, I have long been concerned about our nation’s security problems and their link to narcotics. During my tenure as speaker, we led a bipartisan effort to elevate new anti-drug approaches. As new technologies enabled the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to do battle against drugs, we adopted them. We passed the Drug Free Communities and other bills in this area. Our motivation was to save lives.

Today, we can do that again by shutting down methamphetamine (meth) labs and getting modern medicine more swiftly to sick Americans at the same time — but we need to step up. For several decades, America has struggled to find the right balance between protecting the public against the growing threat of domestic meth labs and allowing consumers maximum access to pseudoephedrine medicines, often critical to treat respiratory ailments. The challenge has been maximizing both public safety and public access. Sometimes, science points the way.

Balancing the interests of law enforcement, community leaders, educators, parents, young people and producers of pharmaceuticals such as pseudoephedrine is challenging. We are at a crossroads. Clandestine meth labs have triggered explosive meth use, and current policies are not working. The health, safety and economic consequences for the nation require new thinking and urgent action.

Experts now estimate that meth abuse costs the American public approximately $23.4 billion per year, according to the most recent RAND study, including more than $4 billion in crime and criminal justice costs, nearly $1 billion in foster care for endangered children, more than $500 million in drug treatment, a third of a billion for other healthcare costs and $61 million in destroying meth labs and cleaning up toxic waste.


These are damning numbers. In the period from 2002 through 2011, an estimated 21,000 children were adversely affected by meth labs. In the same period, more than 4,000 Americans were incarcerated for meth-related murder or manslaughter. Wider public safety costs are not quantified.

So, two facts are clear. First, traditional pseudoephedrine products are getting accessed and converted to meth by both addicts and clandestine labs. We have to stop that. Second, as long as our policies remain stuck in neutral, we will continue to drift backward, kids dying because we are still using convertible pseudoephedrine products. What if we had relatively non-convertible products? Turns out, we do — and we need to use them.

Today, nobody denies that the American public should have maximum access to products that provide effective respiratory relief. We all know pseudoephedrine is widely accepted as the best of these products. At the same time, in 2005, Congress tried to stop the meth labs with the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA), which regulated pseudoephedrine, by having it kept behind the counter. While we had good intentions, this approach has not worked. Meth labs have continued to proliferate — because the precursor is easily convertible to illegal meth.

So-called Smurfing, individuals sweeping through multiple pharmacies to buy the legal limit in each, reopened the door to massive meth-lab proliferation. Thus, under current law, 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine can be purchased for about $25, and converted into 3 grams of meth, selling on the street for more than $300. We are not winning this way. We need a new answer, since 90 percent of today’s meth labs use this “one-pot method,” placing every American at risk.

When CMEA was enacted, we foresaw the one-day emergence of new, innovative technologies that prevented easy extraction and conversion of pseudoephedrine from cold medications into meth. Accordingly, we granted the Drug Enforcement Administration full authority to exempt from purchase restrictions any pseudoephedrine products that might come closer, by making conversion less economical. We provided an exemption for science that made it harder for traffickers to convert it to illicit meth. DEA was empowered to use that authority to help bring science to America’s rescue.

So far, DEA has not made the shift to the less-convertible standard. It is time to do so. It is time to move forward, granting the exemption that curtails meth production from convertible pseudoephedrine and helps all Americans by embracing the new, meth-resistant versions, while also returning public access to pseudoephedrine. While some have interpreted our law as “all or nothing” — perfection or failure — no one in Congress ever meant to deny the advance of science. That was never our congressional intent.

The notion that any pseudoephedrine extraction blocks public access to this innovation contravenes not only our intent, but common sense. We can do better for our kids. Let’s get the locked options exempted and into use. The result is predictable: A dramatic improvement in public safety, reduction in meth labs and their rippling dangers to the community, less meth addiction and greater public access to an important respiratory medicine.

While DEA can do this alone, Congress is now rightly pressing the case for instant action. In a bipartisan way, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Missouri Republican, has recently introduced HR 4502 — Stop Meth Labs and Enhance Patient Access Act. That bill aims to “strike the right balance between keeping people safe and keeping people healthy,” and regrant to DEA “authority to balance the effectiveness of tamper-resistant technologies with processes currently being employed by meth manufacturers.” The bill is backed by the National Narcotics Officers’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Major County Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. My hat is tipped to this bipartisan effort. Let’s get it done now — one way or the other.

J. Dennis Hastert served at the U.S. House speaker from 1999-2007, and managed much of the nation’s anti-drug legislation from 1995 forward.