Ever since the federal government first tried getting DEA regulations in the mid-80s to deal with the meth problem, pharmaceutical companies have known that these products could be misused and turned into meth.
By the 1990s, with the DEA keeping up pressure to constrict the supply of ephedrine and pseudoepedrine going to meth, Pfizer, maker of the popular Sudafed, tried including additives that would make it harder for meth cooks to extract pseudoephedrine. However, the additives made it harder for the body to absorb the decongestant and the work was abandoned.
And Warner-Lambert Co., now owned by Pfizer, holds the patent to another possible solution: a “mirror image” form of pseudoephedrine that can’t be turned into methamphetamine. But product development hasn’t been pursued because getting FDA approval would be a long, very expensive road. (See interview with Pfizer’s Steven Robins). Over the years, Congress has not seriously debated financing research into a cold remedy that can’t be turned into meth, or making it easier for Pfizer to get federal approval for its “mirror image” drug.
Pfizer now has on the market a version of Sudafed, Sudafed PE, with the decongestant phenylephrine that can’t be turned into meth. But time will tell if it’s as popular with consumers as Sudafed, which Pfizer continues to sell. Other companies are beginning to put phenylephrine into their cold remedies, as well as other alternatives such as the combination of acetaminophen and the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.
Critics of the pharmaceutical companies say their long opposition to regulating ephedrine and pseudoephedrine at the wholesale and retail level so that it can’t be diverted to the meth trade has been a key factor in the growth of meth abuse that now affects 1.4 million Americans.