published Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Gov. Bill Haslam's meth plan 'strikes the exact balance,' says Tennessee safety chief

Pseudoephedrine, commonly used in nasal decongestants, is a key ingredient in
making methamphetamine.
Pseudoephedrine, commonly used in nasal decongestants, is a key ingredient in making methamphetamine.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A bill aimed at cutting meth production by limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine Tennesseans can purchase in a 30-day period is the best remedy to a costly problem that is destroying families and draining resources, some of the state’s top public safety officials said Monday.

As part of his public safety legislative package, Gov. Bill Haslam proposes to allow consumers to purchase 2.4 grams of pseudoephedrine, or about a 10-day supply. For those who need more pseudoephedrine for cold or allergy symptoms, pharmacists would have the leeway to increase the amount to 4.8 grams per month. For any more than that, consumers would need a prescription.

“It’s not going to be easy to get the governor’s proposal passed. There are a lot of people lobbying the legislation that it goes too far,” said Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. “We don’t think it goes too far. We think it strikes the exact balance.”

In the past, bills to restrict purchases of pseudoephedrine — an ingredient in some cold medicines — by returning the over-the-counter drug to a prescription-only item have often died in committee.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a lobbyist organization that represents interests of companies that manufacture and market over-the-counter drugs, have hired a public relations firm in Nashville to get the message out to the public that pseudoephedrine should remain over-the-counter.

“There’s not been a lot of sympathy or a lot of agreement from the consensus down there [in the Legislature] that prescription is the way to go. So you come to a point where you [look at] what you want and what you can get,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn. “You may want one thing, and if you don’t get it, you’re still at zero.”

Law enforcement has encouraged state lawmakers to make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only. States such as Mississippi and Oregon that have done so have seen dramatic decreases in lab seizures, a measure of meth activity.

Last year, 1,685 labs were seized in Tennessee. That’s the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of meth drug waste.

For every 2.4 grams of pseuduoephedrine that could be purchased under the proposed legislation, about 1.2 grams of pure methamphetamine can be made, about the equivalent of a sugar packet. A heavy meth user might use a quarter of a gram for a high lasting six to eight hours, said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force in a previous interview.

The legislation would make cooks work harder and expand their networks of smurfs — people who purchase the cold medicine for cooks.

Officials hope the legislation will be effective. Past efforts have showed initial success but meth cooks always seem to find a way.

In 2005, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law requiring pseudoephedrine to be kept behind the counter. In 2011, lawmakers developed a real-time mandatory database. It also became a class A felony to cook meth with children nearby.

“The worst thing would be for the General Assembly to do nothing this year. We need action this year on this,” Gibbons said. “I think there is a sense of urgency amongst most legislators.”

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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