ANALYSIS: Support but no money for anti-meth plan

Sunday, February 22, 2009 | 6:59 p.m. CST; updated 9:00 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY— Last year, Missouri officials pledged to go high-tech in fighting methamphetamine, but the promised real-time electronic monitoring of the drug's key ingredients isn't being funded and hasn't gotten off the ground.

"It's nowhere and dead in the water," said Mike Boeger, the interim administer of the Missouri Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Boeger, a 12-year veteran of the bureau, said it could take at least a year to start the electronic registry after it gets funded.

But "you can't do anything until you get the money," he said.

Missouri regularly is the nation's meth capital. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said the state led the country last year with 1,487 meth lab incidences. That's more than twice as many incidences as second-ranking Indiana, which had 707.

Since a 2005 law limited purchases of medicines with pseudoephedrine — a main ingredient in meth — Missouri pharmacists have kept a paper record each time someone buys cold medicines such as Sudafed and Claritin-D.

The logs slowed the number of meth labs, but they are increasing again as "smurfers," which is the street slang for those buying the ingredients, get around the limits by buying the maximum amount of the drugs at multiple stores.

The legislature and then-Gov. Matt Blunt made a big splash last year by requiring an electronic record — rather than paper records — of the people who buy pseudoephedrine-based medicines.

By connecting all the pharmacies into a single system, it's easier for police to track and harder for smurfers to exceed the limits because a store knows how much was bought elsewhere.

Only a few other states have similar systems. Supporters claimed that putting Missouri on the forefront could put a significant dent in the state's meth problem.

When he signed the provisions into law, Blunt described them as "dramatic steps." Sponsoring Sen. Norma Champion called it "landmark" legislation.

So far, it's been all rhetoric and no money.

Champion, R-Springfield, said she was counting on using a federal grant to pay for the electronic monitoring. She's now looking for new grants, ways to use Missouri's take of the federal economic stimulus money and the possibility of getting drug-makers to help foot the bill.

"I really hate to get things passed that we don't fund," she said. "It feels good, and everybody thinks we've taken care of it, and in some ways, it's worse than not getting it passed because people think then the thing is solved."

It could cost up to $1 million to start the electronic monitoring system and several hundred thousand dollars more per year to continue it.

Missouri's chance at getting federal money for electronic monitoring of cold medicine purchases was pinned on the less publicized but more controversial part of Champion's bill that was designed to make "doctor-shopping" more difficult.

That would have required pharmacists to record and submit a patient's name, address and birth date along with the type of drug, amount and whether it's a refill or a new prescription for every drug prescription.

The state House balked because of concerns over an overly intrusive "Big Brother" keeping track of Missourians' health records. And the prescription-tracking — along with the possibility for federal money — was dropped to get approval for cold-medicine monitoring.

Rep. Jim Guest said the federal funding source isn't worth what he called a significant intrusion into privacy rights that would have occurred by electronically tracking all prescriptions.

"There are so many threats to our privacy coming at us all the way that we need to be ever vigilant to protect our rights and freedoms," said Guest, R-King City. "Too much of our personal information is being divulged without our knowledge."

Even as Missouri's most recent meth effort has been mothballed, the legislature is considering whether to go even further. Some lawmakers want to make pseudoephedrine-based medications available only to those who have prescriptions from doctors. They contend that would be cheaper for the state than setting up increasingly sophisticated monitoring systems.

House and Senate committees this year have each considered legislation that would require a doctor's prescription to get medicines such as Sudafed. That's been done already in Oregon, and Boeger said it has all but eliminated meth labs there. The Department of Health and Senior Services hasn't taken a position on whether to support the legislation.

Champion said she wants the focus to be on getting the funding to implement the electronic monitoring system. And she's worried about forcing Missourians with runny noses and watery eyes to see their doctor before picking up a cold tablet.

"I really would like us to try this before we do overkill in not letting anyone have access to it," she said.


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