FILE — Pharmacy

A neon Walgreens sign lit up against the night sky in Salem, Oregon.

(The Center Square) – For the first time in 15 years, Oregonians could buy cold and allergy medicine without a prescription under a bill critics fear could fuel the state's homegrown meth labs.

In 2006, Oregon became the first state to ban over-the-counter sales of cold and allergy drugs because of one key ingredient: pseudoephedrine. The chemical, called PSE, is a stimulant used as a nasal decongestant to narrow blood vessels in the sinuses. It's also a critical ingredient in making methamphetamines.

According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, 37 states have resorted to electronic tracking and strict quantity limits to regulate access to PSE in recent years. In 2017, more than 30 states began using an electronic tracking system, the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) to track PSE sales. Oregon has not adopted the technology.

House Bill 2648 would let pharmacies sell PSE to anyone 18 years or older with a government-issued photo ID by Jan. 1, 2022. Pharmacists would keep a two-year record of all PSE sales and set a daily limit of 3.6 grams of PSE per person and a monthly limit of 9 grams per person. 

The bipartisan bill is based on legislation written in 2019 to legalize over-the-counter PSE sales. On Monday, it had the support of 36 sponsors plus a long list of physicians and pharmacy worker unions.

Getting a prescription can be a long and costly process for Portlanders like Anna Ritchie, a working college student whose seasonal allergies can make her school life unbearable. Doctor's appointments and copays cost her time and money that she cannot afford.

"My head just hurts too much to focus," Ritchie said. "Allergy medicine is an absolute must for me."

The idea has not sat well with local governments, including those with the Oregon Association of Counties. Rob Bovett, a lawyer with the association, recommended the bill be amended to allow pharmacists to prescribe PSE medication. 

Bovett shared his concerns with state lawmakers earlier this month that demand for homegrown meth labs will shoot up if the federal government cracks down on international meth traffickers as it has in recent years. Bovett says municipalities cannot afford to take that risk.

"If you believe that won't happen again, then you can safely support returning pseudoephedrine to a non-prescription drug with the proposed tracking system," Bovett said. "However, if you feel otherwise, pseudoephedrine must remain a prescription drug to prevent a resurgence of local toxic meth labs in Oregon."

Meth labs have been on the decline since the state banned over-the-counter PSE medications in 2006, but overdoses from the illicit drug account for some 40% of overdose deaths statewide last May. The Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program reported the seizure of nine meth labs in 2014 or a 95% decline from 2005 levels.

Overdose deaths from meth have risen over the last 15 years in the state. The Oregon Medical Examiner reports there were 412 deaths from meth and other psychostimulants between 2015 to 2017 compared to 311 heroin overdoses.

Some members of Oregon law enforcement support HB 2648 on the grounds the state's drug crisis has snowballed despite its current limits on PSE. 

In 2018, meth made up the largest slice of the statewide drug trade, according to the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. The drug was blamed for 77% of violent crime and 63% of property crime in 2018. Between 2009 and 2017, meth seizures grew by 800%, compared to heroin, which rose 300%.

"Meth remains a problem but the sale of small packets of Sudafed is not the problem," retired Deschutes County Sheriff Les Stiles testified. "I can assure you the problem with meth will not go away because you continue to limit small personal purchase of PSE products in our state."

State drug laws have become more complicated since voters reclassified illicit drug possession as a civil violation, allowing people to possess under two grams of meth. Promised addiction centers may be a long way off for Oregon, whose mental health and addiction services were ranked last by Mental Health America in 2019.

HB 2648 passed the House by a vote of 54-4 in April. The bill made it out of the Senate Health Care Committee on Monday. It awaits assignment to the Senate floor calendar.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.