Politics & Government

Senate panel approves meth bill at urging of Rep. Hal Rogers

Holding signs with pictures of Kayden Branham, teens and others rallied Thursday in support of bills that sponsors say would significantly reduce the number of meth labs in Kentucky by making one of the ingredients harder to get. Kayden died in 2009 after drinking drain cleaner at a suspected Wayne County meth lab.
Holding signs with pictures of Kayden Branham, teens and others rallied Thursday in support of bills that sponsors say would significantly reduce the number of meth labs in Kentucky by making one of the ingredients harder to get. Kayden died in 2009 after drinking drain cleaner at a suspected Wayne County meth lab. AP

FRANKFORT — In a rare Frankfort appearance, longtime U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers urged legislators to pass a controversial bill that would require a prescription to buy cold medicines that contain ingredients used in the manufacturing of methamphetamines.

The Republican congressman, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, spoke before the state House and Senate Judiciary committees and later at a packed rally in the state Capitol rotunda on behalf of House Bill 281 and Senate Bill 45.

The push from Rogers was enough to get SB45 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 6-4 vote, but the bill was not taken up by the full Senate later in the day, as had been expected.

The battle over whether to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine is shaping up as one of the biggest and costliest of the legislative session, which resumed Tuesday. And unlike most Frankfort tussles, it's a battle with no clear political or geographic lines.

On one side is Rogers, most of the state's narcotics officers, Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Republican Senate President David Williams. Those who oppose the bill include the over-the-counter drug companies, some law enforcement officials ,and many cold and allergy sufferers who worry that the bill will drive up their health care costs.

Flanked by Stumbo and Williams, Rogers told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning that the number of methamphetamine labs in Oregon and Mississippi plummeted after the states passed similar laws.

After Oregon passed the prescription law in 2006, there have been fewer than 25 labs found in Oregon each of the last four years. In Kentucky, the number of meth lab incidents was 1,064 last year, Rogers said. State police say one incident can include multiple meth labs.

"Any questions?" Rogers said.

Rogers said he was in Frankfort in part to counterbalance the over-the-counter drug industry.

"They are spending millions of dollars to fight this bill," Rogers said. "This bill is not about eliminating cold medicines."

There are 135 cold and allergy medicines that do not contain pseudoephedrine, those who support the bill say.

People will be inconvenienced, said Rogers, but "you're inconvenienced by a red light."

A little bit of inconvenience could save Kentucky children, Rogers said.

But those who oppose the bill told Senate Judiciary Committee members they are concerned it could add to health care costs by making more people visit a doctor.

Pat Davis, the wife of U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, told the committee that, as a mother of six and grandmother of one, she is concerned the bill will lead to more trips to the emergency room and to the doctor. All of her children have allergies or asthma problems, Pat Davis said.

"This will drive already high medical costs higher," Davis said.

Some in law enforcement testified that the electronic system that tracks who buys cold medicines that contain pseudo ephedrine is working and that law enforcement officials are able to use the real-time system to track people who buy pseudoephedrine for meth producers.

The system, commonly referred to as MethCheck, is paid for by the over-the-counter drug companies.

But others in law enforcement said that the number of meth labs in Kentucky has skyrocketed even with MethCheck and that most law enforcement officers find meth labs through regular police work, such as traffic stops, not with MethCheck.

Mandy Hagan, director of state government relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kentucky's neighboring states are planning to join MethCheck, which would make it easier for the state to track those who buy pseudoephedrine. Many people who make methamphetamine will go to states that do not have limits on the amount of pseudo ephedrine an individual can buy, which Kentucky has.

"Now is not the time to walk away from this solution of electronic tracking," Hagan said. "If we can bring those (surrounding) states together, you will see a much better result from electronic tracking."

The association, a non-profit trade organization that represents over-the-counter drug manufacturers, was the second-leading spender on lobbying in 2010, paying $343,377 for its efforts, according to recent lobbying reports.

At a rally in the Capitol rotunda, Karen Kelly, the director of Operation UNITE, told a crowd of more than 200 Thursday afternoon that the inconvenience of going to a doctor could save children's lives. Two children from Leslie County are in a hospital after suffering burns caused by a meth lab explosion, Kelly said. Operation UNITE is a drug task force that operates in much of eastern and southern Kentucky.

"We are here to say loud and clear that my meds are not worth another child's life," Kelly said.

Teens who supported the bill carried signs at the rally that featured a picture of Kayden Bran ham, a 20-month-old Wayne County toddler who died in May 2009 after drinking a substance used in making methamphetamine.

The Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately voted Thursday to pass the measure 6-4. Those who voted against the bill were Sens. Perry Clark, D-Louisville; Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger; John Schickel, R-Union; and Jerry Rhoads, D-Madisonville.

Those who voted in favor were Sens. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville; Carroll Gibson, R-Leitchfield; Tom Jensen, R-London; Robin Webb, D-Grayson; Robert Stivers, R-Manchester; and Dan Seum, R-Louisville.

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