GETTING ON BOARD
Since the first of the year, these Tennessee towns have enacted or are enacting ordinances requiring a doctor’s prescription for pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine:
* Passed: Winchester, Decherd, Huntland, Estill Springs, Cowan, Manchester and Monteagle.
* In process: Tracy City, Altamont, Palmer, Decatur, Martin and Gleason.
Source: Winchester Police Department
As more Tennessee municipalities pass ordinances requiring a doctor’s prescription for pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine, Manchester, Tenn., officials and a state advisory service are casting a wary eye on the new rules.
The city ordinance now passed in every municipality in Franklin County targets the retail sale of cold medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in home-cooked methamphetamine.
Supporters of the ordinances say they answer a lack of action from state lawmakers, while others worry about the validity of civil rules that go after retailers. So far, no citations have been issued in towns where sales are restricted.
Current law requires buyers of the cold and allergy medicines to show a photo ID and sign a logbook that is submitted to the state. People may not buy more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day or more than 9 grams over 30 days.
Law enforcement officials say buyers called “smurfers” circumvent those laws by traveling from town to town or even state to state to stay ahead of record-keeping and purchasing limits.
In 2012, about 748,000 of Tennessee’s 6.4 million residents bought a product that contains pseudoephedrine, state records showed. About half the purchases were diverted to make meth, officials said.
Winchester, Tenn., police Chief Dennis Young said more than two dozen Tennessee towns are studying or have adopted such ordinances and the idea is gaining steam.
But in nearby Manchester, officials say advice from the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service has prompted further study.
Manchester City Attorney Gerald Ewell said Friday that city officials are waiting for an opinion from the state attorney general’s office requested by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma.
MTAS issued a letter in June acknowledging legal issues surrounding the ordinances.
Federal law does not allow state or local governments to regulate substances that don’t fall under rules for prescription drugs, MTAS legal counsel Melissa Ashburn states in a letter to Manchester officials obtained by the Times Free Press.
“This language means that a city may not impose any regulations on sales of nonprescription drugs, or at least no regulations that differ from federal regulations imposed by the FDA,” Ashburn states. “In my opinion, cities may not impose any additional regulations on the sale of products containing ephedrine, and may not require that persons buying products containing ephedrine have prescriptions.”
Exceptions can be granted, but federal records show no exception has ever been applied for or granted, Ashburn said. She suggested that Manchester could “invest a lot of time and money” to file an application for permission to pass the ordinance, “but I am very doubtful that such an attempt will be successful.”
Young and Franklin County Prevention Coalition officials spearheaded the effort earlier this year in their own county, then took their battle on the road when town officials across the state started inviting them to speak.
Young said any doubts arise from interpretation of some of the law’s language. Franklin County town officials believe they stand on firm ground, he said.
Young, drug companies and opponents of the ordinances agree that Mexican cartels are one of the sources of meth, but Young says a second “cartel” exists in local meth cooks and smurfers.
It’s those labs that officials are after, Young said. Labs can put families and children in direct contact with the dangerous chemicals and potential lab explosions and fires, he said.
Mike Taylor, district attorney in the 12th Judicial District of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, said he has heard of no challenges to the ordinances, though he predicted weeks ago the new rules could draw fire.
“There’s no question it has a beneficial impact,” he said. “Seizing labs and charging people is reactive, but this is proactive because you curtail their ability to get the ingredients.”
Taylor said a more effective approach would be statewide restrictions across the country.
Ordinance supporters say state lawmakers didn’t create statewide legislation to do what towns are doing with ordinances.
But state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said in an opinion piece published July 2 in The Tennessean that a prescription law is wrongheaded and “places a massive burden on law-abiding citizens.”
“Implementing a prescription requirement for medicine containing pseudoephedrine has no effect on meth abuse. I repeat, no effect,” Beavers stated. She pointed to DEA reports showing 80 percent of meth is supplied by Mexican drug cartels, domestic meth production is still “widespread,” and reports that some areas of Missouri where prescription laws were passed have seen increases in meth lab busts.
Consumer Healthcare Products Association people point to similar reports in prescription-only states Mississippi and Oregon, where meth problems still make headlines and officials say Mexican meth is increasing.
Despite prescription laws, “meth remains a problem in Oregon and Mississippi,” said spokeswoman Maddie Taylor, of Nashville-based McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations.
Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said his experience is different.
“For the sheriff’s office, we have only busted two meth labs since this went into effect,” Fuller said. He said the pseudoephedrine seized in the busts was purchased from a town that had not enacted the ordinance.
“We’re not saying it’ll stop meth altogether but it will make a significant impact on labs,” Fuller said. “We’re already seeing that in the short time that this has been in place.”
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Subscribe on Facebook at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow on twitter.com/BenBenton on Twitter.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...