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He dropped out of school when he was sixteen, moved in with a meth cook and went on marathon benders that kept him awake for more than three weeks at a time. He ended up in jail in 2003 for felony burglary.
"I did nine months, and I was out on probation," he says. "I was probably off the bus about 30 minutes before I had somebody at my house with a gram of dope, offerin' a good deal. There I go again."
In 2005 six boxes of Sudafed put him back in prison for eight months. The following year Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, requiring pharmacies to keep medicine containing pseudoephedrine "behind the counter," to log each purchase and to sell to any individual no more than 3.6 grams in a single day or 9 grams in a month.
Then, in November 2007, the Mexican federal government banned the import of pseudoephedrine in an attempt to curb the meth "super labs" operated by that nation's drug cartels. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice's annual National Drug Threat Assessment, the tactic worked — but it had the unintended consequence of drastically upping demand for the high-grade, homemade version of meth cooked in small "addiction" labs. Since 2008, domestic meth-lab seizures have increased by nearly 50 percent, from 3,096 to 4,571. Meanwhile, the average price of the drug decreased from about $280 to $130 per gram, and purity nearly doubled.
"You still have the same number of addicts out there who have to get meth," notes Nick Reding, the St. Louis-based author of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. "They've gone back to the dependable local smurfing paradigm. They've actually become larger-scale operations in the United States where people don't just smurf in their own state, they do it regionally."
Johnson's experience supports Reding's observation. In 2008 he and three others were caught in a Wal-Mart parking lot with a carload of supplies, including thirteen boxes of Sudafed. "They can't do nothin' about you going from one store to another in the same day," he says.
At the behest of the pharmaceutical industry, many states, including Missouri, have turned to electronic tracking systems in an attempt to curb meth cooks' smurfing tactics.
"The makers of these medicines are in the business of making people who feel bad feel better," says Elizabeth Funderburk, spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. "They don't want their medicine turned into methamphetamine."
Testifying before Congress in April, Kent Shaw, the assistant chief of California's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, disagreed.
"The [pharmaceutical] industry has mastered appearing as if it is attempting to solve the problem," he said. "In reality, it is merely perpetuating the problem in order to continue reaping the financial gains generated by meth labs."
Shaw and other law-enforcement officials say the electronic databases are shortsighted and ultimately ineffective. They argue that requiring a doctor's prescription to obtain pseudoephedrine — a policy that was in place in the U.S. until 1976 — is the only surefire solution.
The results in Oregon seem to back them up. Before becoming the first state to adopt a pseudoephedrine prescription measure in 2006 (Mississippi joined Oregon earlier this year), Oregon seized more than 200 meth labs annually. Last year police found just ten.
The Northwest's regional burn unit witnessed an equally precipitous drop in the number of meth-burn victims.
"We used to see them quite a bit," says Curtis Ryun, an outreach educator at the Oregon Burn Center in Portland. "But after the law, I really can't remember the last time we had a patient from a meth-lab explosion."
When enacted locally, pseudoephedrine prescription laws have had similarly dramatic effects. Last July Washington became the first of ten Missouri communities (nine cities and one county) to ban over-the-counter sales of Sudafed and similar products.
"Ninety days after the law went into effect, we saw a 94 percent drop in sales of cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine," Grellner says, "and a corresponding 84 percent drop in crimes in the Washington, Missouri, zip code."
Owing to strong opposition from the pharmaceutical lobby, a pseudoephedrine prescription bill was defeated this year in the Missouri House of Representatives. A similar measure considered by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen also failed.
Critics of the proposals, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri State Medical Association, maintain that the laws would raise healthcare costs and set a dangerous precedent by tightening regulation of a substance that is only harmful when combined with other chemicals.
The burn doctors interviewed for this story were unanimous in their support for pseudoephedrine prescription laws.
"This is a huge problem that we deal with in our burn center and that our whole society deals with," Smock argues. "Is it worth the inconvenience to people who have a cold to not have a product that treats their symptoms but, honestly, doesn't cure the common cold? There are a number of other products that are available over the counter that can't be turned into methamphetamine."
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