LOUISVILLE — Another push is under way to require people to have prescriptions for the popular over-the-counter decongestants that are key ingredients in the highly addictive and illegal drug methamphetamine.
Some Kentucky law enforcement officials contend that the only way to clamp down on the proliferation of meth labs, which rely on pseudoephedrine, is to include it on the state's list of drugs and require a physician's prescription to obtain it.
"We have a legal drug that can be created into an illegal drug very easily," said Dr. Praveen Arla, a Bullitt County family practitioner told The Courier-Journal. "I'm surprised that it's not scheduled because of that already. The potential harm to society that can come from this legal drug is pretty scary."
But opponents, including the pharmaceutical industry, argue that making pseudoephedrine a controlled drug will simply make it harder for legitimate users to obtain it.
Noting that Kentucky already requires buyers to sign a registry when they buy pseudoephedrine, they contend the state would be better off focusing on electronic monitoring of sales, cracking down on those who try to buy more than legally allowed.
During Kentucky's last legislative session, two bills that would have limited access to pseudoephedrine, including one making it prescription-only, failed. But the issue is expected to come up again in the 2011 session.
State Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, has prefiled a bill that would require a prescription, but not schedule the drug, which means it wouldn't be tracked by Kentucky's prescription-drug system. In an interview, she said she wouldn't be opposed to amending her bill to including scheduling.
"We're only trying to get to the people who abuse it," Belcher said, adding that saving a few lives is worth the inconvenience of calling her doctor when she needs allergy medicine.
Supporters of scheduling say the prospects of success improved greatly after the Kentucky Medical Association endorsed the effort in late September. Dr. Preston Nunnelley said the organization decided the benefits to public health are too great to oppose.
"The inconvenience can be outweighed by the benefit to public health," Nunnelley said.
Several other states around the country are considering scheduling.
Through the end of September, Kentucky authorities have discovered 810 meth labs throughout the state, compared with 741 for all of 2009, according to Kentucky State Police statistics.
"If we can reduce our meth labs by 50 percent, that's what I'm hoping to do," said Sgt. Stan Salyards, with Louisville Metro Police and the president of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association.
But pharmaceutical industry experts adamantly oppose scheduling, claiming that it will burden 15 million people who use drugs with pseudoephedrine legally. The Consumer Heathcare Products Association says $550 million a year is spent on those products.
Marshall Fisher, director of Mississippi's Bureau of Narcotics, said that since the state passed a prescription law in July, the number of meth labs has dropped as much as 65 percent.
"If I had my way, I would take pseudoephedrine off the face of this Earth," Fisher said. "It's an unnecessary epidemic, and it's self-inflicted."