Politics & Government

Battle over how best to fight meth looms in upcoming legislative session

FRANKFORT — The battle over how to combat Kentucky's mushrooming methamphetamine lab problem is set to take center stage again in the upcoming legislative session.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Brent Yonts pre-filed legislation that would block the sale of cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine to anyone convicted of a meth-related crime.

Yonts, at a news conference in the state Capitol, said the legislation is a compromise bill that would help curb methamphetamine labs in Kentucky without punishing law-abiding citizens by requiring them to get a prescription for cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine.

"We have a common sense solution," Yonts said. "It punishes the criminal. It does not punish soccer moms."

But many of the state's narcotics officers oppose the bill, saying it would do little to stop the proliferation of methamphetamine labs in Kentucky.

Many of the people who purchase cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine have never had a drug-related conviction. Instead, meth lab cooks often pay meth users or other sympathetic people, commonly called "smurfers," to buy cold medicines. This also allows meth cooks to skirt the state-imposed limit of 9 milligrams of pseudoephedrine a month, which is tracked electronically.

"It doesn't work," said Karen Kelly, the director of Operation UNITE, a multi-county drug task force. "The majority of people buying it do not have methamphetamine convictions."

Instead, Operation UNITE and others, including the Kentucky State Police, are pushing a proposal that would require a prescription for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine. That measure — which was passed in Oregon and Mississippi but failed in the Kentucky legislature earlier this year — has dramatically reduced the number of meth labs in both states, statistics show.

Yonts said Tuesday that the prescription bill probably won't have enough support in the upcoming legislative session to become law.

"I don't' think the votes are there for that," he said.

Yonts said one legislator told him that he polled his constituents and 75 percent of people in his legislative district oppose requiring a prescription.

The over-the-counter drug industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat the measure this year, according to legislative lobbying records. For example, The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents over-the-counter drug companies, spent $343,777 on lobbying efforts, including $300,000 for phone banks to call people in Kentucky about the bill.

Maj. Tony King of the Jefferson County Sheriff's department said he supports Yonts' bill because the state's biggest problem is abuse of prescription drugs. The alternative measure requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine would simply lead to more doctor shopping, he said.

King and others said states that have blocked meth criminals from buying pseudoephedrine have seen dramatic declines in the number of meth labs.

But Oklahoma, which passed a bill in 2009 to block the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine to those with meth-related convictions, has seen an increase in the number of meth labs.

Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said the number of meth labs went from 743 in 2008 to 818 in 2010. The state is on track to have 910 meth labs by the end of this year.

Woodward said they found it was cumbersome and time-consuming to put all meth-related convictions into the registry. Moreover, since the bill passed, meth cooks with convictions are using other people to buy the cold medicines, he said.

"We've told the drug industry that we've tried the electronic tracking, we've tried the registry, it's not working," Woodward said.

Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, who sponsored the prescription bill last legislative session, said Tuesday that she will sponsor similar legislation in the upcoming session with some minor changes.

The measure would sunset after three years to give police officers time to determine if requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine works. Also, Belcher said gel caps would be excluded because it's difficult to extract pseudoephedrine from that form of medicine.

The measure also would decrease the legal amount of pseudoephedrine a person could buy from 9 milligrams to 7.5 milligrams a month.

Belcher said there are more than 130 cold medicines that do not contain pseudoephedrine that people would still be able to buy. People who prefer cold medicines with pseudoephedrine are typically severe allergy or sinus sufferers who regularly see doctors and can easily get prescriptions, Belcher said.

Belcher's bill and a similar bill filed in the Republican-controlled Senate had the backing of House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, also testified in support of the bill.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has yet to take a position on the measure. On Tuesday, he did not say whether he would support either bill.

"Like many Kentuckians, I am conflicted about this issue," Beshear said in a statement.

Beshear said that he will continue to review the issue and that Yonts' bill will be part of that review.