By SEAN MURPHY
OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma authorities have been at the forefront of the nation's battle against methamphetamine, but they will soon have a tough new opponent: a politically connected, well-heeled pharmaceutical industry.
At issue is a proposal to require a prescription for certain cold and allergy tablets containing pseudoephedrine. Police and prosecutors say the measure is essential for curbing an out-of-control meth trade. Drug companies and their lobbyists are eager to keep pills such as Claritin-D and Advil Cold and Sinus on store shelves.
The brewing legislative fight poses some tricky politics for lawmakers in this conservative state, squeezing them between big business' opposition to increased regulation and law enforcement's urgent pleas to curb the meth trade.
"It will be very passionate topic," said state Rep. David Derby, a Republican who opposes the prescription-only effort. "You're going to see the worst of the worst on one side and the worst of the worst on the other side. And you're going to have the legislators in the middle of it."
The debate in Oklahoma won't be the last. Similar bills are under consideration in California, Alabama and Maine.
When Mississippi adopted a similar bill last year, drug companies spent thousands on lobbyists and launched an ad campaign that included radio and print advertising.
"We just feel very strongly about the rights of consumers to purchase a safe, effective and legal product," said Carlos Gutierrez, director of state government relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a Washington-based group that represents the top manufacturers and distributors of nonprescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines.
Oklahoma, he says, "has an addiction problem. Until the state addresses that, we're not going to do anything to combat the meth problem."
Law enforcement groups say drug companies are chiefly concerned with money. In testimony before a U.S. Senate panel last year, the president of CHPA acknowledged that sales of products containing pseudoephedrine are worth $600 million.
"They are fighting this tooth and nail. Why? It's for profit," said Darrell Weaver, head of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. "These pharmaceutical companies have one goal in mind, and that's to make profits. I have one goal in mind, and that's to make Oklahoma safer."
Oklahoma has been at the leading edge of anti-meth legislation before.
In 2004, it became the first state to ban over-the-counter sales of cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine. The legislation was prompted in part by the 2003 killing of a state trooper who was investigating a mobile meth lab when he was shot. The struggle was caught on the patrol car's dashboard video camera.
After that ban went into effect, the number of meth labs quickly plummeted and dozens of states, and eventually Congress, followed with similar legislation.
But meth labs are on the rise again in Oklahoma and many other states. That's largely because of a new "shake-and-bake" method of cooking the drug that requires only a small amount of pseudoephedrine and some easy-to-obtain ingredients that can be cooked in a 2-liter bottle on the run.
As meth users shared the recipe, the number of labs in Oklahoma jumped from 213 in 2008 to 743 in 2009, according to the Bureau of Narcotics.
Oklahoma's proposed law would only apply to the tablet form of the drug. Proponents stress that gel caps and liquid forms of pseudoephedrine would still be available to purchase over the counter. But the industry argues that only the tablet form offers extended relief for cold and allergy sufferers.
Frustrated with growing meth activity, a handful of cities and towns across the state began enacting local laws to require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. But those ordinances were struck down in July, when Attorney General Scott Pruitt released an opinion stating that communities didn't have the authority to do so.
Five years ago, Oregon became the first state to require a prescription for products containing pseudoephedrine - a step that authorities say was effective. Since then, the state has seen a 96 percent reduction in meth-lab incidents, a 32 percent drop in meth arrests and a 35 percent reduction in meth-related emergency room visits and health care costs.
In 2008, two years after the law took effect, the state experienced the nation's largest crime rate decrease, said Rob Bovett, a district attorney in Lincoln County, Ore.
Mississippi is the only other state to impose a similar restriction, and it also has seen a tremendous drop in the number of meth labs.
"If you see a reduction between 10 and 15 percent, that's a big deal, and we're between 60 and 70 percent. And it almost happened overnight," said Marshall Fisher, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.
Oklahoma should prepare for "massive resistance" from the pharmaceutical industry, Bovett said.
"They put up a huge gauntlet," he said. "And it's the same type of gauntlet they're putting up in many other states."
The debate is sure to intensify when Oklahoma lawmakers meet for the 2012 legislative session beginning in February.
An attempt to approve a similar bill last year failed after the measure emerged from a House committee but was not granted a hearing on the House floor.
This year, a joint House and Senate panel conducted a two-day interim study on the proposal that drew nearly a dozen lobbyists, including drug company and pharmacy officials who touted a more enhanced computerized tracking system as a key to solving the problem.
But District Attorney Eddie Wyant, a prosecutor who has seen an explosion in the number of meth labs in his far northeastern Oklahoma district, said a tracking system isn't going to do much to stop the problem.
"We don't want to track meth labs," Wyant said. "The fact is, I would just as soon not have any meth labs to track."