Pseudoephedrine prescription legislation has troubled history

Sunday, March 13, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri House of Representatives is taking another look at legislation that would make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only.

Proponents of a bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, say it will greatly reduce the problem of methamphetamine in Missouri. The active ingredient in Sudafed, pseudoephedrine, is the main active ingredient in meth. Addicts buy the medicine in bulk, traveling from pharmacy to pharmacy to skirt state regulations aimed at stopping bulk purchases. The state is annually either first or second in the number of meth operations in the country.

Opponents of the bill say cold and allergy sufferers should not be punished for the actions of a few drug addicts. They say making Sudafed a prescription-only medication will force people to go to a doctor, paying for a visit for a medicine that is readily available now, albeit from behind a pharmacist's counter.

And ever since this legislation first surfaced in 2007, the opposition has been triumphant.

It was in that year that former Reps. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, and Scott Roorda, D-Jefferson County, sponsored legislation that would declare pseudoephedrine as a Schedule III narcotic, available only by prescription. The pair hosted a standing room only committee hearing in the House basement, taking several hours of testimony from law enforcement officials, physicians and even reformed addicts on the dangers of meth and the need to make the precursor chemicals less available. The committee eventually voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill on to the House floor.

Publicly, Lipke, the chairman of the committee, was upbeat about the bill's chances. Privately, he confessed, he never stood a chance. He said powerful business interests in the Capitol were working against him, and he realized the bill would never reach the floor. Lipke was correct.

The bill languished for years, only rarely receiving committee hearings. An attempt to add the legislation to another bill on the House floor last year failed with less than 40 representatives voting for the amendment.

But Schatz revived interest in the bill this year, and on Wednesday, he trotted out an impressive list of county sheriffs, narcotic investigators and prosecuting attorneys in a hearing before the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety. Once again, the hearing room in the Capitol basement was too small for the audience, and a two-hour time limit was far too short to accommodate all who had come to speak for and against the legislation.

Sheriff John Jordan of Cape Girardeau County called efforts by the state to stop methamphetamine trafficking, manufacturing and use over the last decade "pathetic."

"Out of the $22 million we have dispersed through the MoSMART program to fight methamphetamine labs in Missouri, $20 million of it came from the 'feds'," said Jordan.

$2 million of it came from the state over the last 10 years. That's pretty pathetic.

"If you make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance, you will see a huge reduction in the amount of meth labs in the state immediately."

Col. Ron Replogle, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said past efforts to stop the sale of pseudoephedrine to meth addicts and cooks had not been successful, and the current method of using a real time database to keep track of Sudafed sales between all of the state's pharmacies is being bypassed too.

"They [the meth cooks] will continue to get around those methods to get their pseudoephedrine, and will continue to do so unless we make this a Schedule III [drug] and take it out of their hands," said Replogle.

Rob Ovett, a county prosecutor from Oregon, who led the successful effort to make pseudoephedrine a Schedule III narcotic in 2005, told committee members that meth labs have been all but eliminated in his state. He also said in Mississippi, where a similar bill passed last May, meth lab incidents are down more than 68 percent.

Opponents of the bill had their say as well. Mandy Hagan, a lobbyist for the Consumer Health Care Products Association, told committee members that members of her association fund the state's current electronic data base tracking system, and she said the system must be allowed to work.

"We don't want our products used for making meth," said Hagan. "I disagree that if we pass this prescription requirement here, that we won't be back here again in a couple of years. Every new law has resulted in a reduction of meth production...temporarily."

Ron Fitzwater, chief executive of the Missouri Pharmacy Association, also pleaded with the committee for more time for the pharmacists' real time electronic database to work. The law requiring the database was passed in 2009, but because of funding issues on the state level, the system was not up and running until December 2010.

"We readily admit that if this system doesn't work, we're going to have to come back to this table and look at other potential solutions, mandatory prescription will obviously be one thing that is on the table," Fitzwater told committee members. "But we think we have got to give this system a chance to work."

Fitzwater said pharmacists and law enforcement officials should know within a year if the electronic tracking will work.

In the meantime, communities around the state are moving ahead without state government and enacting local ordinances to make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only, including in Speaker Steven Tilley's own community of Perryville. Other communities stopping the sales of non-prescription Sudafed include Cape Girardeau, Scott City, Jackson. Poplar Bluff, Sikeston and Joplin.

Tilley admits there is a growing wave of sentiment, but he still hasn't changed his mind.

"In the past, I've always been opposed to it, because you make a law-abiding citizen spend $80 or $90 on a doctor's visit to fix a problem they used to be able to go to...any family pharmacy to fix," said Tilley.

Tilley said over the last few years, there was no great groundswell of support to back such an issue. But Schatz's bill has more than 60 co-signers, and the Speaker admits he will probably have to let the bill move forward.

"But there is clearly momentum for this and while I'm not ready to say I'm going to change my position on it, it certainly has some momentum to it."

Committee Chair Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, said he has not had discussions about the bill with any one from the Speaker's office, and expects the committee to vote on moving the bill to the House floor at the committee's next meeting.

From there, Schatz will have to see how far momentum carries in this legislature.

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