JEFFERSON CITY — A doctor's visit and a prescription would be needed for many cold medicines under a Missouri bill aimed at targeting methamphetamine production.
Supporters say requiring a prescription for medicine containing the decongestant pseudoephedrine would stymie meth cooks who hit up multiple pharmacies, buying the maximum amount of the drug allowed by law. They argue that visiting multiple doctors and securing multiple prescriptions would scare away many of the meth producers.
Under current Missouri law, people can buy up to 9 grams of pseudoephedrine every 30 days. That works out to about two 15-dose boxes of 24-hour Claritin D or six 24-dose boxes of Sudafed.
Buyers must go to a pharmacy and sign a paper log with certain identifying information and the amount of the drug purchased. Law enforcement officials say that system is often abused.
Opponents of the bill, including two of the state's medical groups, say requiring a prescription would increase waiting times and costs for patients who need only basic medical care.
A Senate committee heard testimony on the bill Monday but did not take action.
In 2006, Oregon placed pseudoephedrine on the list of drugs that require a prescription. Officials there say the move nearly eliminated local meth labs because it addressed "group smurfing." That practice involves several people buying up the maximum amount of pseudoephedrine products in concert and giving the pills to meth producers.
Missouri has long led the nation in meth lab busts. It had 1,487 busts in 2008, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. That number is up by about 200 labs from 2007 and represents nearly a quarter of the nationwide meth lab incidents.
Last year, Missouri lawmakers authorized a statewide electronic monitoring system for pseudoephedrine-based drugs. Lawmakers said they were trying to create a real-time monitoring system so "smurfers" could not shop around at different pharmacies to load up on meth-making ingredients.
Ron Fitzwater, executive director of the Missouri Pharmacy Association, said that system has not been given a chance to work. Lawmakers authorized the system but did not release funds for its creation.
"We think that is still the best option," Fitzwater said. "It continues to keep legitimate products available for legitimate patients."
Sponsoring Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said some opponents are driven by profits.
"Everyone knows that this product is being used in the manufacture of meth," Crowell said during the committee hearing. "We don't have that many colds in the state of Missouri."
Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, sponsored a similar bill in the House. He argued requiring a prescription for the drugs is much more effective than creating an electronic log.
That way, he said, "the state's not dumping money into a database that we don't know will work."
The state's main doctors' group says the prescription bill could clog doctors' offices and drive up fees, and waiting times, for basic cold medicine.
"It's just a little bit more burdensome for doctors and a little more costly for patients," said Jeff Howell, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Medical Association. "It's just too much of a hassle to receive treatment for that type of cold."
But law enforcement officials say the hassle is worth it.
"We are talking about one drug that does nothing more than stop a runny nose," said Franklin County Deputy Sheriff Jason Grellner, who displayed several cold medicines without pseudoephedrine during the committee hearing.