FRANKFORT — The debate over requiring a prescription for cold medicines used in making methamphetamine flared anew Thursday in the Kentucky legislature.
For the third consecutive year, police told lawmakers that requiring a prescription for medicines containing pseudoephedrine is the best way to cut the burgeoning number of dangerous home-made meth labs in the state.
Law-enforcement witnesses told Senate and House Judiciary Committee members that there have been dramatic drops in the number of meth labs in two states that require prescriptions for over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine.
The number of labs in Oregon dropped 96 percent, and in Mississippi the number is down 67.5 percent since its prescription law took effect in mid-2010, according to information presented at the hearing.
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"If you want to stop methamphetamine labs, you will make it a prescription," R. Darrell Weaver, head of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, told Kentucky lawmakers.
Makers of remedies containing pseudoephedrine strongly oppose requiring a prescription for the products, which reportedly generate billions in sales annually in the United States.
The industry argues that requiring a prescription would create a hardship for legitimate consumers and that there are less intrusive ways to attack the problem.
An industry group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, was the top lobbying spender in Kentucky in 2011 as it beat back the measure.
Thursday's committee meeting was the first on the issue this session, but the arguments were not new. The urgency of the issue continues to grow, however.
Police recorded 1,146 meth labs in Kentucky last year, up from 1,080 in 2010, Joe Williams, a former state-police commander who now heads the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said at Thursday's hearing.
The 2011 figure could go higher as police finish compiling reports.
Aside from the issue of meth abuse, the labs expose people — including children — to dangerous fumes, can blow up and injure or kill people, and are expensive to clean up because they're considered hazardous waste.
Using plastic soft-drink bottles as "labs," drug traffickers and addicts mix pills containing pseudoephedrine with ingredients that include drain cleaner to create a chemical reaction which produces meth.
There are limits on how much pseudoephedrine people may buy each month, but the "cookers" obtain piles of pills by having groups of people buy them at stores and pharmacies.
There are several bills this session aimed at curbing meth production.
The details differ, but Senate Bill 50 and House Bill 79 would require a prescription for most cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine; another, HB 80, would not require a prescription but would create a way to block people convicted of meth-related offenses from buying medicine that could be used to make the illegal drug.
Sen. Tom Jensen, a London Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a sponsor of SB 50, said he hoped the committee would vote on his bill next week.
That could change as negotiations continue on the bill, however.
Jensen's bill, at this point, would not require prescriptions for liquid versions of medicine with pseudoephedrine. It's harder to use gelatin capsules to make meth, but it can be done, police said Thursday.
The over-the-counter drug industry supports the competing proposal to block sales to meth offenders.
Industry representatives didn't get a chance to testify Thursday but outlined their case against requiring prescriptions in handouts, emails and interviews.
Those arguments include that an electronic meth-tracking system already in place successfully blocks thousands of over-the-limit pseudoephedrine sales, that an offender registry would augment that system by blocking sales to criminals, and that requiring a prescription would penalize law-abiding people without stopping illegal sales of pseudoephedrine.
"Don't pass a law that puts the burden on them and punishes them," said Bill Head, a vice president with the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Trish Freeman of the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, who reviewed research on meth controls, said studies indicate blocking sales to criminals might cut the number of small labs initially, but the effect does not appear to last.
Freeman said limited evidence suggests requiring a prescription might have the greatest effect because it reduces "smurfing" — the practice of having multiple people buy pseudoephedrine for a meth cooker.
Marshall Fisher, head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, told lawmakers the prescription law had been a success there.
"This is a silver bullet," he said.
Still, most meth in the United States is imported from Mexico, so requiring a prescription for cold medicine would not end the problem.
Jensen, however, said the main goal is to curb the number of homemade labs.
"The reality is the meth lab itself causes real problems" apart from abuse of meth, he said.