published Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Tennessee House panel sidetracks Gov. Bill Haslam's anti-meth proposal

NASHVILLE — A House subcommittee Tuesday sidetracked Gov. Bill Haslam's anti-meth proposal while advancing a rival measure that would place lesser restrictions on buying cold and allergy medicines used to make the illegal drug.

State Rep. Tony Shipley, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said there was "simply no stomach" on the panel for the governor's proposal that would limit the annual amount of medicines containing the meth precursor pseudoephedrine at the equivalent of a 2 ½-month supply of medicines like Sudafed.

The panel advanced the Kingsport Republican's own proposal, which he said would cover an eight-month supply, or 44.8 grams of pseudoephedrine per year -- more than three times Haslam's proposed limit of 14.4 grams.

The move drew the ire of House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is responsible for shepherding Haslam's legislative agenda through the Legislature.

"We've got a good number of members that would like to see the governor's bill, and see it closer to what he wants than what Rep. Shipley wants," McCormick said.

"He made a terrible mistake moving his bill ahead of the governor's bill, and I don't think it will be successful," he said.

McCormick also took issue with Shipley's suggestion during the committee hearing that putting the governor's bill on hold was by agreement with the various parties involved.

"I think that was an agreement completely made by Tony by himself," he said.

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who is heading the governor's anti-meth initiative, said the higher limits in Shipley's bill wouldn't make a dent in "smurfing," the practice of using straw buyers to obtain meth precursors from several stores.

"Ninety-three percent of Tennesseans are purchasing less than 14.4 grams per year," Gibbons said. "And we would submit that that 7 percent purchasing over that is largely made up of individuals who are engaging in smurfing."

"A 44.8 gram limit per year is not going to have any significant impact on the production of meth in our state," he said. "We just need to understand that."

Haslam spokesman David Smith said in an email that the governor "agrees with law enforcement that the limits in the bill that passed out of subcommittee today aren't low enough to truly fight meth production in our state."

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a pharmaceutical industry group, praised the decision to advance the lesser restrictions of Shipley's bill.

Director Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement that the group "will always advocate for anti-meth solutions that target criminals, not honest Tennesseans."

A Vanderbilt University poll in December showed that two in three Tennesseans would support requiring a prescription to buy medicines used to make meth. But the pharmaceutical industry says public sentiment is against making it more difficult to access cold and allergy medicines.

Shipley said the constituents tell him "they don't want us to mess with this at all," but that some restrictions are necessary to try to combat meth.

Shipley placed Haslam's bill on the panel's final calendar on March 18, meaning it could still be revived if a compromise could be found.

"There's enormous spirit in the House to cooperate with the governor, and think we'll be doing that," Shipley said. "That's why we didn't kill the bill."

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