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WMU student, flight nurse joins fight against meth

by Mark Schwerin

March 30, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU student Dawn Johnston.
KALAMAZOO--As a critica-care flight nurse, Dawn Johnston had seen enough.

Now the Western Michigan University student and full-time flight nurse for West Michigan Air Care is mounting a legislative effort aimed at methamphetamine production.

"I'm fed up with transporting people who burn themselves up in meth labs," Johnston says. "The cost to our local governments, healthcare resources and to the children affected because of meth lab activity is very troubling, and labs are even blowing up in motels and apartment buildings, threatening the public. It's time we did something about it."

Johnston is pushing legislation that would make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, just as it was before 1976. The nasal decongestant has become the principle ingredient or precursor for making meth, an extremely addictive drug that is wreaking havoc with the criminal justice system and medical community and destroying families across Michigan and the nation.

Legislation passed several years ago requiring pseudoephedrine and related drugs to be placed behind the counter and buyers to sign a book when purchasing them is not working, Johnston says. Meth producers hire others to buy the drug for them, use fake identification or find other ways to circumvent the restrictions. A meth maker in Memphis, Tenn., had 50 fake IDs, she says.

The pharmaceutical industry is touting additional safeguards like MethCheck, a computerized database for tracking pseudoephedrine buyers. But Johnston notes states that have instituted such safeguards have not seen the number of meth labs decrease and some have actually seen increases. "What's the point?" Johnston asks. "We don't want to find more meth labs; we want to prevent them. Each one we find costs thousands."

Mississippi and Oregon, both of which have returned pseudoephedrine to prescription drug status, have seen remarkable drops in the number of meth labs, Johnston says. It's the only effective means of combating the problem. "And it hasn't significantly driven up their cost of healthcare," she says. "That's bunk promoted by drug companies seeking continued profit off the meth trade."

Johnston has seen first hand the devastation caused by methamphetamine. She's transported meth addicts to the hospital after they were severely burned in explosions. These are people with no insurance, who often have children that must be removed from the home and placed in foster care. In her prior position as a burn nurse, she recalls a patient who blew himself up twice.

"He had skin grafts on top of skin grafts," Johnston says. "The drug just makes you crazy. I'm going to blow my stack if I have to transport one more kid who's blown himself up."

Johnston is now completing a report on the human and financial impact of meth labs in Michigan. After she's finished she will contact Michigan legislators across the state to educate them about the need to pass a pseudoephedrine prescription drug law. Through her contacts with law enforcement Johnston has already found a legislative ally--former St. Joseph County sheriff and current state Rep. Matt Lori. Lori is drafting legislation that targets a total of 15 drugs used to make meth, including pseudoephedrine. The drugs would still be available by prescription.

Johnston also has received support from her program in WMU's Bronson School of Nursing. Johnston, who is enrolled in the school's RN-to-BSN program, has found her instructors to be very receptive. She's turned her efforts into a community health project for school credit.

"I have been delighted with my nursing instructors, who tend to encourage beneficial, real-world projects, rather than just busy-work for their students," she says. "They've provided additional time and structure I needed to make this happen."

Meth is far more dangerous than other drugs for a number of reasons, Johnston says. People can make their own meth, given the right ingredients, in labs with a high incidence of explosions. The payoff is the production of a highly addictive and 100 percent potent drug.

"It creates such an intense high that people, who have no thought of becoming addicted, dabble in it and become hooked because it's so potent," Johnston says.

Expensive cleanup of toxic chemicals used in meth labs also is a huge problem, she says.

Johnston knows she has an uphill battle because she's fighting well-funded and well-connected drug companies that want to keep pseudoephedrine an over-the-counter drug.

"It will be a tough fight, but there's a lot of support now," she says. "Law enforcement and healthcare professionals know they could shrink meth labs by July if the bill passes. "And the law would put millions back into our state budget, making heroes of a lot of legislators."

For more information, visit Michigan Meth Lab Elimination Act on Facebook.