Meth fight comes to General Assembly

Meth fight comes to General Assembly

February 27th, 2011 by Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Proposed laws to fight meth

SB 561/HB 181 - Makes pseudoephedrine products a prescription-only drug

SB 325/ HB 234 - Requires pharmacies to use an electronic database called the National Precursor Log Exchange, paid for by cold medicine manufacturers

SB 1534/HB 1990 - Gives the National Precursor Log Exchange database a year to work. If it doesn't, pseudoephedrine products would become prescription-only in 2012

SB 351/ HB 591 - Adds additional guidelines onto the National Precursor Log Exchange that pharmacists would be required to follow to sell pseudoephedrine products

Source: Tennessee Legislature

Sides are being drawn in the state Legislature on how to curb the production of meth in Tennessee.

At the crux of the argument is how to limit the availability of pseudoephedrine - a main ingredient to make methamphetamine but one of the quickest, most efficient remedies for sinus problems.

Lawmakers are divided on whether to pass laws that either would require pharmacies to use a database - the National Precursor Log Exchange - to monitor pseudoephedrine sales or would turn pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines such as Claritin-D, now available over the counter, into prescription-only.

The opposing bills clashed Thursday on the Senate floor.

"No immediate legislation can stop meth," Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said as she introduced her electronic database proposal. "[But] we don't need a sledgehammer to kill an ant."

Lawmakers who questioned her bill argued that the meth epidemic is so large, it needs a massive response, in this case, requiring people to have a doctor's prescription to buy medicines with pseudoephedrine.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who is sponsoring a prescription-only bill, argued that law enforcement authorities believe taking pseudoephedrine off the shelves is the only way to stop meth manufacturing.

"It's a very large problem, particularly in the rural areas," he said. "I would favor using a sledgehammer to stop this terrible abuse."

The proposed legislation for the database, backed by pharmaceutical manufacturers and the Tennessee Pharmacists Association, was making headway in the Senate until Thursday, when lawmakers questioning its effectiveness deferred the bill for a week.

But Beavers, who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee where her bill was unanimously passed in mid-February, chided her colleagues.

"It's a serious bill, and you don't need to question it," she said on the Senate floor.

Tennessee is ranked second in the nation for meth labs seized, and the state hit an all-time high in 2010, when more than 2,000 meth labs were busted.

On each side of the argument, lawmakers argue that their proposals have local support.

"There are people out there who need [cold medicine]," said Beavers, whose bill has several co-sponsors.

While lawmakers acknowledge that limiting the public's access to pseudoephedrine products is an unpopular option, they say law enforcement is asking for the law.

"Hopefully, people are realizing the cost is real," said Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who is sponsoring a prescription-only House bill. "The tracking system is certainly an option we have, but law enforcement would like us to go further giving them help."

Law enforcement, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Police Chief's Association and several local sheriffs are openly supporting laws to restrict pseudoephedrine access.

"Nothing has worked so far; nothing has stopped it," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd.

Last week, federal funding to assist local police in meth lab cleanup ended, putting the costly burden on local governments. Local law enforcement has estimated that each meth lab - which is full of toxic and explosive chemicals - costs about $2,500 to clean up properly.

Faced with the possibility of having to pay for meth cleanups, several local law enforcement officials held a news conference, trying to get the attention of lawmakers.

McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy asked local pharmacies to participate in a 100-day ban on pseudoephedrine sales or require users to get a prescription from their doctor.

"Even now, a pharmacy has the power to request prescriptions," Guy said. "And we're calling on other pharmacies to do the same thing."

During his news conference in Athens, Tenn., Guy was flanked by officials from several local police departments, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and the 10th Judicial Circuit of Tennessee, which covers Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who is a co-sponsor of the electronic tracking bill, said the sheriff's request got his attention.

"I've always been opposed to making this drug prescription," he said during the Senate session Thursday. "But I'm at least now up for discussion for prescription only."

Some authorities, such as the Tennessee Sheriff's Association, have taken a neutral path and decided to support any legislation that addresses meth.

"Making it a controlled substance by prescription is certainly the best way to go, [but] tracking is a good option," said Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns, president of the sheriff's association.