SUNDAY, JULY 24, 2005

Bob Drug Crisis: State Needs Meth Law That Makes Some Sense
Guest Columnist

      Washington DC -- Methamphetamine has made its way into Virginia. The illicit drug, which is easily and cheaply produced by consumer products, has spread quickly and created a national crisis. In a survey by the National Association of Counties released this month, 58 percent of the 500 law enforcement agencies surveyed in 45 states cited meth as their greatest drug problem, easily surpassing all other drugs.

      According to the highly respected National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2003 meth lured 12.3 million Americans aged 12 and older to try it. As former U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey has said, "Methamphetamine is one of the worst drug menaces ever to threaten America, associated with paranoia, stroke, heart attack, and permanent brain damage, leaving a trail of crime and death."

      Yet Virginia hasn't taken action, nor has Congress as a whole. Virginia and the nation need serious legislation to combat the growing problem and serious threat of meth. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 61 meth lab seizures in the state last year, vs. one in 2000. Yet politicians in the General Assembly are dragging their feet on what really needs to be done on the issue.

      Last summer's "Meth Watch," created and still in place through the Virginia Attorney General's office, is a good first step but does not address the crisis. The program asks drug stores and pharmacists to participate, on a voluntary basis, to provide video training for employees, place posters to reinforce the information from the video in workrooms, and report suspicious transactions. This year lawmakers agreed to intensify penalties, making it a felony to possess two or more ingredients with the intent to make meth, and to make it a crime punishable by 10-40 years in jail to make meth with a child under 18 present.

      A VOLUNTARY program and stronger penalties for meth production after-the-fact frankly dodge the issue of addicts and criminals buying so-called cold medicines as ingredients to make methamphetamine in home labs.

      What state and national legislators must do is mold their legislation after Oklahoma's already adopted and proven-effective anti-meth law. Last year, after facing the crippling problem, Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine -- an ingredient found in most over-the-counter cold medicines and a main ingredient in meth. The new law requires stores to keep popular cold medicines behind the counter, have a pharmacist or technician on duty to check buyer's identification, have purchasers sign a log book, and submit that information to a statewide database linking pharmacies. The law has resulted in an astounding 80-percent reduction in meth-lab busts in the state. It's what you'd call a "no-brainer."

      In fact, the Oklahoma law has worked so well that dealers and producers are flocking to other states to continue their crimes. If Virginia doesn't put meth ingredients behind the counter, the exiled dealers and producers are going to settle and make their meth here.

      Seeing the Oklahoma success, 19 states have already passed legislation that follows the blueprint of the Oklahoma law and puts ephedrine behind the counter but not Virginia, nor the U.S. Congress on a national basis.

      DEA AND LOCAL law enforcement wear protective gear, including hazardous material suits and breath protection devices, to stop burning their lungs during clean-up of the extraordinarily dangerous chemicals used in meth labs. We can confront the problem of meth not just in the homes where it is made, but in the stores where the ingredients are first sold. The provisions of the Oklahoma law dwarf the entire "Meth Watch" program, and before the drug spreads like wildfire throughout the state, proper action must be taken.

      The federal government remains slow to act. Congress is under immense pressure from the drug companies and their $96 million in lobbying power, selfishly pushing for softening of proposed federal and state legislation and pushing for any federal action to supercede tougher state laws like Oklahoma's. The drug companies' monetary power -- paid for by the sick people of America -- should be used for medicinal research and development, not a lobbying campaign to disrupt the national interest for further financial gain.

      Yet we have to play the cards we are dealt. Virginia can't wait for federal action, and time is ticking away as other states pass strict anti-meth laws and dealers and producers flock to states with weaker laws -- such as Virginia. Meth is in Virginia.

      Robert Weiner was spokesman and Director of Public Affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy 1995-2001, and is a regular guest lecturer at the University of Virginia on national drug policy.  Emma Dick and Dino Manalis, policy analysts at Robert Weiner Associates (www.weinerpublic.com), contributed to this piece.