Politics & Government

Battle likely over bill to require prescription for cold medicine used in meth

FRANKFORT — Two states that require a prescription for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine have seen dramatic declines in the number of methamphetamine labs, a state report released Thursday shows.

Proponents say Kentucky would likely see its own sharp declines if it passes a similar proposal this legislative session. But opponents of House Bill 15 and Senate Bill 45 say requiring a prescription for popular cold medicine would be too costly for cold and allergy sufferers and lower the state's tax revenue. Over-the-counter medication is taxed, but prescription medicine is not.

They also argue the current system of electronically tracking purchases of cold medicine such as Sudafed is working, despite an explosion of meth labs in recent years.

The fight over what to do with Kentucky's meth lab incidents, which numbered more than 1,000 in 2010, promises to be a key issue when the legislature returns to Frankfort on Feb. 1. It also may be the most costly battle of the 2010 General Assembly.

Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers of over-the-counter products, has spent about $327,377 on lobbying in 2010, according to records from the Legislative Ethics Commission. That's more than any other organization, according to ethics commission records.

Appriss, the company that runs an electronic system used to track purchases of pseudoephedrine in Kentucky, spent about $21,200 in 2010, according to lobbying records, and that number could increase over the next few months.

Supporters of the bills — state and federal narcotics officers, the Kentucky Medical Association and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers — have spent little if any money lobbying for it, said Stan Salyards, a Louisville narcotics officer helping push the bills.

The narcotics officers' association doesn't have money for lobbying, he said.

"You're either going to listen to the people who clean this stuff up ... or you're going to listen to the people who make $600, $800 million" from sales, Salyards said.

Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville, the sponsor of HB 15, and Republican Sen. Tom Jensen of London, sponsor of SB 45, say Kentucky must do something soon to curb the state's meth lab problem.

"This is the worst of the worst," said Jensen of methamphetamine addiction. "Not only does it cause addiction and various health problems with the people that take it, it is toxic and causes environmental problems. We've had law enforcement officers that have become ill."

It can also harm children, Jensen said. For example, Kayden Branham, a 20-month-old Wayne County toddler, died in 2009 after allegedly drinking chemicals made in the production of meth.

But Mandy Hagan, director of state government relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, says requiring a prescription may not alleviate Kentucky's meth problem. "Prescription drugs are abused at a higher rate than methamphetamine," Hagan said.

According to a report released Thursday by the legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee, both Mississippi and Oregon have seen a dramatic drop in the number of meth labs after requiring prescriptions for drugs that contain meth precursors.

Mississippi's law has only been in effect since July 1 but there has already been a 70 percent decline in the number of meth lab incidents and a 76 percent drop in the number of kids removed from homes with meth labs, said Marshall Fisher, the director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

"This is something that makes a difference and we've got the numbers to prove it," Fisher said. "How can anybody not see it's the right thing to do?"

Oregon has also seen a dramatic decrease in the number of meth labs, which are down from an average of 9 a month in 2005 to 1.5 labs a month in 2009.

Since 2008, Kentucky has had an electronic monitoring system — formerly known as MethCheck — that allows police to see in real-time who is buying over-the-counter medicines that contain ingredients used to make meth.

That system, which some say is an invaluable tool for law enforcement, would no longer be available if lawmakers approve legislation that requires a prescription.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of meth labs (found) because of the information that MethCheck provides," said Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain. "It has proven to be very helpful in tracking individuals who are trying to (buy over-the-counter drugs to produce methamphetamine.)"

According to state campaign finance reports, Cain has received $1,500 in campaign donations from people associated with Appriss, the Louisville company that developed and runs MethCheck. But Cain said his association with Appriss has nothing to do with his belief that Kentucky does not need to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

"The content of my message has never been for sale," Cain said.

If pseudoephedrine requires a prescription in the future, buyers would be tracked in Kentucky by the All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, or KASPER, which tracks every prescription for controlled substances written in the state.

Cain said the KASPER system, although good, does not track purchases in real time. There is typically a lag of several days.

But Jensen and other law enforcement officers say Kentucky can't rely on MethCheck alone.

"If it were working, then why are the numbers of meth labs increasing?" Jensen said.

Kentucky State Police Maj. Joe Williams said most of the meth labs found in Kentucky are not uncovered using MethCheck.

"We are literally stumbling over them," Williams said of the state's meth labs.

Dave Gilbert, head of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force, which covers Pulaski, Wayne and McCreary counties, said meth labs have proliferated to the point that his detectives spend so much time on cleanups that it hampers investigating drug traffickers.

"Their time's being consumed by these 'shake and bakes,' " he said, referring to small meth labs that cookers create in 20-ounce bottles. "We don't have time to really work any long-term cases."

Cleaning up meth labs also is costly. Williams told committee members that it costs the state on average about $2,100 to clean up each methamphetamine lab. In total, it cost Kentucky law enforcement about $2.8 million in 2010, Williams said.

"That money could be used for going after drug traffickers," Belcher said.

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