Is it worth mildly inconveniencing a large number of Kentuckians to spare an innocent few from horrible, even deadly, harm?
The answer shaping up among lawmakers seems to depend on whether they represent innocent bystanders who are being injured by toxic exposure, fires and explosions from the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Kentucky set a record for meth lab discoveries last year — more than 1,000 — despite a drug-industry sponsored system for tracking purchases of non-prescription medicines that contain an essential meth precursor.
Highly addictive and devastating in its effects, meth accounts for a small portion of drug abuse in Kentucky, far behind alcohol and prescription drugs.
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But meth has a unique potential for inflicting collateral damage: Every pound generates five to seven pounds of toxic waste.
In September, 200 doctors from across Kentucky considered the menace posed by the manufacture of meth in makeshift laboratories and even plastic bottles that can be tossed from cars.
A physician from Glasgow had asked the Kentucky Medical Association's House of Delegates to support a prescription requirement for common cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, the ingredient that criminals mix with common chemicals to make meth.
The doctors debated the same concerns that lawmakers have debated. They talked about the costs and inconvenience of no longer being able to buy popular drugs such as Claritin D and Sudafed without a prescription.
In the end, concerns about the health and environmental hazards prevailed.
(It's no coincidence the motion came from the Barren County Medical Society. After coming across a meth lab and being exposed to toxic waste in the trash, Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton was hospitalized. He temporarily lost feeling in his legs and face, suffered arsenic poisoning and was left with permanent respiratory damage.)
The physician delegates unanimously supported making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.
They pointed out that, while it is an effective medicine, there are other over-the-counter remedies that do not contain the meth precursor. Oregon saw a dramatic drop in meth activity after requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
Also, a prescription requirement would have the additional benefit of protecting patients who have high blood pressure from mistakenly taking pseudoephedrine-based medicines that can worsen the condition.
Lawmakers face an interesting choice: Take the advice of Kentucky physicians who are on the front lines, caring for meth's innocent victims? Or bow to a well-financed "keep government out of our medicine cabinets" campaign by the industry that profits from marketing pseudoephedrine over the counter?
No one is claiming that Senate Bill 45 or House Bill 15 would eliminate meth use. Their goal is to reduce the horrible toll from meth's manufacture in Kentucky by making it harder to obtain the precursor.
Given what's at stake, this is a responsible response to protect Kentuckians, such as the two Laurel County children who were in a trailer where fire broke out in a meth lab last month.
Lawmakers from places that are not being ravaged by meth shouldn't wait until they are before following Kentucky doctors' advice.