Policy makers should be just as eager to remove outdated, ineffective and misguided policy as to make new policy, but sadly, this is never the case. Times change, society changes, we update old information and learn new approaches all the time. This suggests that we should always be in the habit of re-evaluating past approaches and willing to change when things change or information changes. But policy doesn't work like that, most policies create specific stakeholders who will resist change, while the removal of policy generally creates more diffuse benefits.
Which brings us to an interesting new study about Oregon's requirement that Pseudophedrine may only be dispensed with a prescription from a doctor. The Cascade Policy Institute has released a study of the impact the requirement has had on the illegal manufacture of meth in the state. They find that the requirement has not had a meaningful impact on the number of "meth lab incidents:"
...the number of seizures of labs, dumpsites, chemicals, and equipments that indicate local manufacture of methamphetamine. [sic]Here is the main figure:
There are a number of challenges to the study that make causal statements difficult: for example, what other policies were also changing in this period, how was law enforcement changing, and so on, are questions that would need to be answered to raise confidence in this result.
In other words we don't know the counter-factual - what would have happened in Oregon in the absence of the requirement. For example, since Oregon had one of the worse meth problems early on, it is possible that there was a disproportionate law enforcement response.
Still, there is pretty compelling evidence to suggest that the prescription requirement did not make a major marginal impact. It appears that behind-the-counter laws enacted a few year prior in Oregon and neighboring states (and which is now federal law) may have been quite effective and that the additional prescription requirement was unnecessary.
Of course the new problem in meth is the shake-and-bake method of manufacturing it which is causing some serious problems with
On the other hand there is a real cost to the prescription only policy to those that would use Pseudophedrine legally and for its intended purpose. I, for one, am prone to sinus infections and Pseudophedrine is the best source of relief from the symptoms that can be quite debilitating. Getting a prescription is a pain and requires an expensive doctor's appointment. Even then, it is more complicated, because the doctor has to get a special prescription form - not the normal scrip - and it all has to go into a centralized database. That said, decent alternatives exist and if I am really suffering, a prescription can be had.
So, all this is to say that I am not ready to declare that the prescription-only regulation should go, but that this is pretty good evidence that it should at least be examined to see if it is the best policy approach. First and foremost for those who would see it abolished, I think, is to demonstrate that it is no more effective in reducing the shake-and-bake method of manufacturing. I suspect that it may be, but by how much?