New cold medicine rules to take effect

Meth ingredient to be tracked electronically; pharmacist vexed

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OLYMPIA — A new electronic tracking system for certain over-the-counter cold medicines will go into effect Oct. 15, though a Vancouver-based pharmacy director fears it could be more time-consuming than filling a prescription.

The Washington State Board of Pharmacy has adopted new rules that will replace written logbooks of sales of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that can be used to make methamphetamine. One popular brand of the drug is Sudafed.

Federal law limits sales of the drug to less than 3.6 grams per day and nine grams within 30 days. Washington began placing medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter in 2006, and requiring buyers to fill out a paper form.

“With paper logs, law enforcement would have to go pharmacy to pharmacy. It was very cumbersome for them to collect information,” said Doreen Beebe, program manager for the Washington State Board of Pharmacy. “This is a more efficient way of tracking.”

Attorney General Rob McKenna’s Operation: Allied Against Meth Task Force has pushed for an electronic record-keeping system for five years and said the new system would be less cumbersome for pharmacists.

But not all pharmacists agree.

Win Muffett, the director of pharmacy operations for Vancouver-based Hi-School Pharmacy, said the new system is too time-consuming and expects it to hurt business.

“It takes extra time and labor by our employees to deliver the product,” Muffett said. “It’s hopefully more effective than paper logs but it takes so much time to even sell the product that it isn’t efficient.”

The National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, works by scanning photo identification with the type and amount of the product, then provides real-time information to cashiers if buyers have exceeded the legal quantity of pseudoephedrine. Cashiers can then recommend a lower dose or refuse the sale. The purpose of the system is to prevent “smurfing,” a strategy used to acquire large amounts of medicine by visiting one store after another buying small amounts at a time.

Muffett said the extra time and labor needed to operate the system would slow down cashiers and ultimately hurt sales.

“There are actual amphetamine products that can be legitimately prescribed and it’s actually easier to fill those products than it is to go through all the regulations for Sudafed,” Muffett said.

Hi-School Pharmacy also has stores in Oregon, where a prescription is required to purchase pseudoephedrine products. The prescription law also impacts sales, Muffett said, but it is still preferred to Washington’s system.

“The current system is more complicated than just filling a prescription,” Muffett said. “They need to either have a national system or move the product into a controlled substance class.”

Since Oregon’s law restricting drug purchases went into effect in 2004, the number of meth lab incidents has decreased by 97 percent.

Beebe said the board decided on a less restrictive route than Oregon’s law because it keeps medicine more accessible for well-intentioned buyers.

“It still allows people to acquire these products for legitimate reasons, if they need more than exceeds the legal limit they can then get a prescription from a doctor,” Beebe said. The system also makes the products more available to citizens who do not have access to a doctor.

“The NPLEx system will reduce the paperwork burden for pharmacists, provide real-time information to law enforcement in the course of a criminal investigation and continue to limit access to the ingredients necessary to produce meth,” McKenna said.