The war on meth: Cities are on the front lines

The war on meth: Cities are on the front lines

August 6th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Nasal decongestant pills containing 30mg of pseudoephedrine hydrochloride are a key ingredient in the manufacturing of methamphetamine, known commonly as meth.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Tennessee municipalities seeking to help law enforcement with its war on methamphetamine are finding themselves running up against a brick wall: their own state and some conservative lawmakers.

Since the first of the year, seven cities in the region have passed ordinances requiring a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medicines - the main ingredient in home-cooked methamphetamine. Six more area cities are in the process of passing such an ordinance, and law enforcement officials are courting 25 across the state.

The medicines currently are available over the counter, and current state law requires buyers of the cold and allergy remedies to show a photo ID and sign a logbook that is submitted to the state. People may not buy more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day or more than 9 grams over 30 days.

Law enforcement officials have said for years this strategy is not enough to blunt the meth trade. They say buyers called "smurfers" circumvent those laws by traveling from town to town or even state to state to stay ahead of record-keeping and purchasing limits.

In 2012, about 748,000 of Tennessee's 6.4 million residents bought a product that contains pseudoephedrine, state records showed. About half the purchases were diverted to make meth, officials said.

So law enforcement has taken its case and pleas for help to cities, asking them to pass ordinances to require prescriptions in their communities. They say the addition of municipal ordinances answers a lack of action from state lawmakers who've declined to require the medications to be prescription-only - something drug companies have resisted.

But some conservatives question the validity of city rules that go after retailers and doctors.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said in an opinion piece published July 2 in The Tennessean that a prescription law is wrongheaded and "places a massive burden on law-abiding citizens."

In a column in July on the Free Press editorial page, she wrote: "Prescription legislation for pseudoephedrine is not a good policy choice for Tennesseans. At its core, it is a penalty for honest people who depend on affordable medicine to treat their common cold and allergy symptoms."

Beavers, who faces a re-election year in 2014, has reported that health companies contributed just over a third of the $47,184 in donations in her 2012 war chest, according to votesmart.org.

In her Free Press column, she cited a recent Drug Enforcement Administration statement that more than 80 percent of our country's meth comes from Mexico, so: "Domestic restrictions on pseudoephedrine sales will do nothing to affect this supply. Nor will such laws affect demand."

Winchester, Tenn., police Chief Dennis Young disagrees, noting there is a second cartel of local cooks and smurfers. He is one of the state's law enforcement officials pushing for city help.

"This legislation is the only successful evidence-based strategy that has ever been effective and sustainable in the nation. It's time," he wrote last week in a letter to the Times editorial page.

Mike Taylor, district attorney in the 12th Judicial District of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, also supports local ordinances.

"There's no question it has a beneficial impact," he said. "Seizing labs and charging people is reactive, but this is proactive because you curtail their ability to get the ingredients."

Taylor would take a step further. He says a more effective approach would be restrictions across the country.

Instead, a Tennessee advisory service is indicating cities may not, because of federal law, impose any additional regulations on the drug, and Manchester city officials are waiting for an opinion from the state attorney general's office.