FRANKFORT — State lawmakers gave new life Wednesday to two bills designed to tackle Kentucky's problems with methamphetamine labs and prescription drug abuse.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo has said the two measures could become the landmark legislation of this year's General Assembly.
On a 60-36 vote, the House approved Senate Bill 3, which would further limit the amount of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine that consumers could buy without a prescription. Pseudoephedrine is a key ingredient used in making meth.
Meanwhile, the Senate approved House Bill 4, which transfers from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Service to the attorney general's office an electronic monitoring system that keeps track of prescriptions for pain pills. The vote was 26-9.
Both bills are likely to go to conference committees made up of representatives from both chambers, who will try to negotiate a compromise on differences in the House and Senate versions of the bills.
As altered this month by the House Judiciary Committee, SB 3 would require Kentuckians to get a doctor's prescriptions to buy more than 7.2 grams of pseudoephedrine a month and 24 grams a year. A generic box of pseudoephedrine with 48 pills, each with a 30-milligram dosage, contains 1.44 grams of the medicine.
The bill's sponsors had wanted lower limits, but they compromised with opponents who worried about inconveniencing cold and allergy sufferers. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbied aggressively against the state requiring prescriptions at any level.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association said it was disappointed.
"The entire commonwealth of Kentucky experiences some of the worst allergy seasons year after year, yet proponents of SB 3 are seeking to make it more difficult for chronic allergy sufferers to access the cold and allergy medicines they depend on for timely relief," the association said.
Gel caps and liquid pseudoephedrine would be excluded from the limits in SB 3 because making meth from those forms is considered more difficult.
Supporters of SB 3 recited horror stories on the House floor Wednesday about children and police officers put at risk by toxic, explosive meth labs.
Several conservative lawmakers said they oppose the bill because it infringes on the rights of sick Kentuckians to seek relief through legal medication. The legislature is too quick to sacrifice liberties in order to wage its never-ending war on drugs, they said.
The legislature in the past has agreed to restrict pseudoephedrine sales by tracking them electronically, requiring a signature and photo-identification for purchase and placing the pills in secure areas behind store counters. But that didn't solve the meth lab problem, so now even more restrictions are coming, said Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington.
"Once you start giving up a little bit of your freedom, it's a hard thing to stop," Lee said. "At some point, we need to be able to stand up and say, 'I'm going to draw a line, and I believe in the American people, and I'm not going to penalize the American people, I'm going to penalize criminals."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London, told his Senate colleagues Wednesday that HB 4, which would more closely regulate pain clinics, was not perfect and needed more work. There are three work days left in the legislative session.
But Jensen said lawmakers must do something to stem dozens of deaths from prescription drug overdoses each month in Kentucky.
A key provision of the bill is transferring oversight of the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting program, known as KASPER, to the attorney general's office.
Jensen said allowing health care professionals to oversee KASPER "has not worked" and it should be placed in a law-enforcement agency. But critics of the move contend that it could make health care providers wary of writing and dispensing legitimate prescriptions.
Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, voted for the bill but said it has "several flaws," including not being strong enough against doctors who overprescribe pain pills. The bill primarily leaves it up to the Kentucky Medical Licensure Board to come up with regulations that guide how doctors prescribe and dispense drugs.