By SHELIA BYRD
Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, Miss. - Law enforcement officials and other groups in Mississippi are lobbying lawmakers to require a prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine - a key ingredient in methamphetamine - as the state's drug problem reaches unprecedented levels.
Last year marked the first time meth arrests outnumbered those for crack and powder cocaine, 981 to 608, said Marshall Fisher, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who now heads the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.
"I've been in the middle of this storm for three decades," he said. "It's tragic."
An organization representing drug makers says similar legislation has been introduced in Georgia, Missouri and Washington. Oregon became the first in the nation to pass such a law in 2006, where the number of meth labs busted dropped from 473 to 20 in the first year, Fisher said. Some municipalities in Missouri have adopted similar ordinances for medicines such as Claritin-D and Sudafed.
The pharmaceutical industry has responded with a proposal to create a real-time electronic system that would let law officers track all sales of pseudoephedrine. In fact, opposition to the prescription proposal is so strong the industry has offered to pay for the systems in states with serious meth lab problems.
Many states already require the medicines be held behind pharmacy counters, and photo identification is needed for purchases so the buyer's information can be logged into a database.
Such systems are already in place in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas, said Mandy Hagan, director of state government relations for Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a group that represents makers of over-the-counter medicines.
She said Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana and Missouri have passed laws and are working on implementation.
"We feel that prescription proposal goes too far, especially for a state like Mississippi that has a high rate of people who are uninsured," Hagan said Thursday.
About 15 million Americans use products containing pseudoephedrine each year, Hagan said. She said the industry hasn't calculated the financial impact of prescription legislation.
However, some say the drug makers' proposed tracking system doesn't go far enough in preventing meth abuse.
In Kentucky, State Trooper John Hawkins said the state had a record 716 meth lab busts in 2009, a 60 percent increase from the previous year. He said there's a limit of nine grams - about three packages - on pseudoephedrine purchases in a 30-day period in Kentucky, and the system won't let the buyer exceed that amount.
"It used to be the meth cook didn't know how much he was getting. Now he knows and he just goes and gets his neighbor to buy the medicine," Hawkins said. "It's getting us the information we need, but it's not deterring the addict."
Many meth makers have found ways around current restrictions, Fisher said. Often, a group will pile into a car and go store-to-store, a practice known as "smurfing." A prescription law would stop that, he said.
"People ask me all the time, from church socials to cocktail parties, what can we do to stop this drug problem," Fisher said. "I've never seen anything that would have more widespread impact than the scheduling of pseudoephedrine. It would reduce the number of addicts over time."
Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said hearings on the proposals will be held next week. Tollison supports prescribing pseudoephedrine.
"If we can limit one ingredient, that will cut down on the meth problem to a certain extent," he said.
The bills are House Bills 512 and 1110 and Senate Bills 2339 and 2759.