Since Mississippi enacted a law in 2010 that requires a prescription for pseudoephedrine, one of the key ingredients in the manufacture of methamphetamine, the number of meth labs has plummeted.
But has that affected the number of people who use the drug? And why do we still hear about major drug busts in Mississippi related to methamphetamine?
MPB’s Evelina Burnett set out to find the answer to both of these questions. Here’s her report.
The bottom for Mark Stovall came in 2001. The Clarksdale native and Delta State graduate’s life had become consumed by methamphetamine.
"I remember standing at my back door one day, and just looking out at the sky, and I was so aware that there were some problems in my life, and I wanted them to change," he said. "And I remember just saying a prayer, and my prayer was so simple: God, I don't even know if you want anything to do with me any more, but I need some help."
Two weeks later, he was arrested. Soon after, arrested again. He went into treatment and a month later, came out to find his life in shatters.
"So, you can imagine, coming out treatment. Divorce. I had a son that I couldn't see for a while -- I had to show that I was going to be a real dad," he says. "Financial devastation. I lost my job. I had no home."
But Stovall made it through those dark days. He got a job, and later went to work at a local adolescent treatment center. He eventually became the adolescent services coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health's Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services.
He’s now the bureau’s director of treatment services, where he can see firsthand the impact of the 2010 Mississippi law requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
"What we're starting to see now is that they may use some meth, but when they're coming to our treatment center doors, they're saying it's really hard to get," he says. "And I like to hear that, because it wasn't always like that. So I know that this law specifically has changed the mom and pop cook-shops. That's pretty much a thing of the past."
The Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services says that treatment centers around the state report the number of meth users has declined or - mostly in counties near state borders - stayed the same.
Shane Garrard, a childhood friend of Stovall’s who was in treatment at the same time, is director of alcohol and drug services for Region 1 Mental Health. He says the law hasn’t completely stopped methamphetamine use, "but we don't see as many pure methamphetamine users - that person that comes into treatment that just uses methamphetamine and that was the only substance they used."
Garrard says this is an important distinction, because chronic meth use has a different effect on the brain than meth that’s only used occasionally. Meth fuels the production of dopamine, that chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. Use it a lot, and your brain stops responding to dopamine.
"In other substances, such as opiates, I may not have such a strong urge or craving, and three months down the road, my mind may have returned to some normal functioning," Garrard says. "But with methamphetamine, it may be six to 18 months before your mind every comes back to, those normal things that make you feel good, make you feel good again."
This is what makes meth so addictive and destructive. Again, treatment services director Mark Stovall:
"I think most any police officer or neuroscientist would tell you, it's a devastating drug. It's hard to bounce back from," he says. "But it's not hopeless. I just want to make sure I say that for anyone out there that might be suffering. It is not hopeless."
METH LAB INCIDENTS DROP SHARPLY AFTER NEW LAW
The state of Mississippi is in recovery from methamphetamine addiction too. When the pseudoephedrine law went into effect three years ago, the number of meth incidents dropped in half, and the numbers have continued to fall.
In 2010, there were more than 300 active meth labs found in Mississippi. This year so far, there’ve been eight.
Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics director Marshall Fisher says he’s never seen a law have this kind of immediate and direct impact on drug activity. And, he says it’s also had a big effect on enforcement.
"We're not getting the meth labs we used to get, which has really freed the narcotics agents up to do more quality investigations where they're working on drug-trafficking organizations," he says.
Drug enforcement officials say the methamphetamine in Mississippi today is basically coming here in two ways– groups of individuals are buying pseudoephedrine in neighboring states and making it here, or the methamphetamine itself is being imported from out of state.
In the past two years, drug enforcement has seized millions of dollars of methamphetamine on the Gulf Coast that they say is linked to Mexican drug cartels.
Drug Enforcement Administration Gulfport resident agent in charge Daniel C. Comeaux says the pseudoephedrine law has helped because it deters.
"Some people say, oh, it's too much trouble, obviously if I do this, they'll be tracking me. So they don't do it," he says.
IMPACT ON CONSUMERS NOT YET CLEAR
Of course, for the average law-abiding Mississippian with a cold or allergies, the restrictions on pseudoephedrine are an inconvenience. A report this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says there's been a major drop in pseudoephedrine purchases but it's not clear what the financial and health impact on consumers has been.
Treatment services director Mark Stovall, who’s seen the devastation of meth firsthand, says he was worried at first the law would be a burden on people who didn’t do anything wrong.
But seeing the impact the law has made has changed his opinion. He recalls the devastation methamphetamine was causing a decade ago in his own hometown of Clarksdale.
"Oh man, it was just absolutely robbing our small town, robbing it of its children," he says. "everywhere you turned there was a meth lab. This law has completely changed that. You can go to that same small town, and it's nothing like that."
And Stovall remembers too that day 12 years ago, when he was looking out from his porch, praying, and his journey since. He’s helping others now. He has a job he’s passionate about. He has a close relationship with his son, is re-married and has a new baby.
"As I've come this far, I can look back and say, you know, I think my prayer got answered," he says.
MISSISSIPPI METH LAB INCIDENTS AND OPERATIONAL LABS, 2009-2013
2009: 692 total meth lab incidents, 349 operational labs
2010: 698 total meth lab incidents, 314 operational labs ** New law went into effect July 1, 2010
2011: 309 total meth lab incidents, 99 operational labs
2012: 253 total meth lab incidents, 21 operational labs
2013: 114 total meth lab incidents, 8 operational labs (through Nov. 30)
Source: Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics
METH USAGE AMONG YOUTH DECLINING
Meth usage among Mississippi’s high school students is also on the decline. Meth usage among Mississippi 9th through 12th grade students fell from 6.3% in 1999 to 3% in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.
Jerri Avery is director of the bureau of alcohol and drug services for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. She says this stems in part because drug usage follows trends, but also because there has been an effort to teach youth about the dangers of methamphetamine us.
The law seems to have had another major impact on youth: The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report this year that, after the prescription-only law went into effect, the number of Mississippi children found in homes with drugs fell by 81 percent.
GAO REPORT FINDS PRESCRIPTION-ONLY METHOD HAS IMPACT
A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office earlier this year found that the prescription-only method, which is currently in place in just two states, Mississippi and Oregon, does seem to have an impact on reducing meth lab incidents, though regional and reporting factors may also be at play, since Mississippi’s neighbors have also seen a decline in the number of labs.
As for the effect on consumers, the GAO report found that, after the law went into effect, the number of pseudoephedrine units sold in Mississippi dropped from 749,000 units to 191,000 units. But it says that it’s not clear if there’s been an impact on consumers. It also found that doctors and pharmacies did not report an increase in their workload due to the new law.