published Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

War on meth needs a new prescription

  • photo
    Pseudoephedrine products are shown in a pharmacy.
    Photo by Andy Johns /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
    Photo by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

In the last year, Tennessee authorities seized nearly 1,700 meth labs across the state and removed 300 children from homes where someone was making the dangerous and illegal drug. Meth is made with a common, over-the-counter cold and allergy medication — ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

The problem — and the addicts it creates — costs Tennessee taxpayers $7 million dollars a year, officials say.

And the stakes are getting higher.

What once was largely a rural addiction and manufacturing process is increasingly moving into cities and inner-cities. Already authorities are finding that city gangs are “smurfing” the over-the-counter drugs to sell or trade to meth manufacturers and helping the makers skirt the state’s registry database intended to track meth makers. It’s just a matter of time, investigators say, before the gangs will be making and using meth themselves — bringing the volatile and toxic labs into densely populated areas.

Some local cities and counties last year were joining police in the fight by passing local ordinances requiring the drug be sold only with a doctor’s prescription in that area. But the pharmaceutical companies oppose the prescription remedy because they sell far less of the drug if it’s not available over the counter. The pharmaceutical lobby continues to persuade state lawmakers that putting the drug dispensing back in the hands of doctors would hurt consumers who suffer from allergies. In December, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper determined that local efforts to restrict access to popular cold and allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine violate existing state law.

“We have always maintained that a prescription mandate for pseudoephedrine is a state issue. Local city and countywide mandates are not effective solutions to address the illegal purchase of pseudoephdrine-containing medicines,” according to a statement from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade association representing the leading manufacturers and marketers of over-the-counter medicines.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam clearly agrees that it is a state issue — and one that needs attention. This week two of his top law enforcement officials are crisscrossing the state to tout Haslam’s new proposed legislation. The governor and state law enforcement officials want the General Assembly to limit ephedrine and pseudoephedrine sales to individuals. The bill would allow consumers to buy, over the counter, 2.4 grams a month — a 10-day supply. Pharmacists would be empowered to double that amount. But consumers requiring more of the decongestant would require a doctor-issued prescription.

In 2012, the average Tennessee consumer bought 4.8 grams for the entire year.

State officials don’t want to call the bill a compromise, but in light of the opposition from many lawmakers and especially Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, it is a compromise — and a very good one.

The bill keeps allergy medications easily accessible for law-abiding citizens with seasonal allergies, but the limit puts a hardship on meth-makers and their accomplices, the smurfers.

Making the drug require a prescription — always — would be preferable. But the governor and law enforcement can’t contribute money to lawmakers’ campaigns. So this compromise, and some muscle from the public to tell lawmakers we’re tired of spending $7 million a year to bust meth labs, may be the best we can get.

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