We used to worry about meth labs in West Marin, even in Bolinas, picturing a cluttered house stocked with tubing, tanks of explosive chemicals, and a stove with bubbling beakers of a toxic brew. It’s gotten a lot simpler in recent years. Meth is now made in cars. There is a faster, cheaper and simpler method of making small amounts of meth. The ingredients – pills with the decongestant pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and household chemicals are shaken in a 2 quart soda bottle. No flame is required. The back seat of a car or a bathroom stall are the new makeshift labs. The batches of meth are much smaller, so the addicts who make them are harder to apprehend. According to the NYTimes (4/15/10) roadsides throughout the country are littered with discarded pop bottles and chemicals from these car labs. Cleanup is dangerous and time-consuming, and addicts in cars are hard to apprehend. They are also very dangerous drivers.
The basis for meth production is pseudoephedrine, made in labs in Mexico, China and other countries, often from petroleum-based compounds. The chemical comes into the country illegally. However, most of the new car-based labs use pseudoephedrine pills known as Sudafed, Actifed or Contac. In California, these drugs are no longer directly available over the counter, and a limited amount is sold at any one time. However, drug addicts and dealers employ ‘smurfers’ - people who travel to various pharmacies, using different names, to buy as much Sudafed as possible
States are trying out different techniques to stop the new car labs. Oregon has gone the farthest, with a 2006 law that makes medicines with pseudoephedrine available only with a prescription. The state has seen a marked decrease in seizures of meth labs and in property crime,. Identity theft and child abuse are also linked to meth use. A similar law has been proposed in California, opposed by drug companies and chain drug stores. Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a bill in the US Senate called the Meth Labs Elimination Act, which would take Oregon’s law nationwide. This proposed legislation has been targeted and opposed by drug companies eager to protect their $500 million allergy and cold care business.
Sudafed and related drugs cause stimulation of the central nervous system, including sleeplessness, excitability, dizziness and anxiety. In certain people they can cause blood pressure elevation, a very rapid or irregular heart beat, and stroke.
There are safer ways to deal with nasal congestion due to colds or allergies. Work on eliminating allergens in your home. Rinse your nose with a solution of 4 ounces warm water, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon baking soda, using a bulb syringe or a neti pot. Alternatively, you can buy a Sinus Rinse kit in local pharmacies. Use an antihistamine such as Benadryl or Chlor-trimeton, being aware that these drugs can make you sleepy, or Claritin. Vitamin C in high doses is a natural antihistamine; many people take a gram of C every 3-4 hours when they have a runny nose due to a cold or allergy, and get relief without fatigue as a side effect.
But back to meth – here are some steps you can take for the safety of your family and the wider world. Call Jared Huffman, our assemblyman: 415-479-4920. Ask him to support the Wright bill, a measure that would require a prescription for drugs containing pseudoephedrine, which can be made into methamphetamine. Also call Mark Leno, our state senator, 479-6612, with the same message. Take your activism a step further and call Lynn Woolsey, our Congresswoman – 507-9554, and Senators Feinstein -393-0707, and Boxer – 403-0100. These are all local numbers. Ask these congresswomen to support Senator Ron Wyden’s bill to require a prescription for drugs containing pseudoephedrine.
Meth is not a benign recreational drug; it is a killer drug that threatens our youth and also our budgets. If you have any doubts about this, read Tweak, by Nic Sheff, a local youth whose life was profoundly disturbed by methamphetamine. Annual costs for meth detection, cleanup and health care in the US exceed $23 billion. It’s time to try what worked in Oregon to combat this drug.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH - back issues on this blog.