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Missouri House members seek new limits on cold medicine purchases

Saturday, January 21, 2012 | 5:12 p.m. CST; updated 10:33 a.m. CST, Sunday, January 22, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — After successfully opposing bills to require a prescription for products containing pseudoephedrine — which can be used to manufacture methamphetamine — the over-the-counter medicine industry is now backing proposals in two meth-heavy states that would curb the amount of pseudoephedrine a customer can buy and increase electronic tracking of purchases.

Legislation introduced in Missouri this past week would lower the state's monthly and annual limits on the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy and require a doctor's prescription for customers with past felony drug convictions. Industry groups have said such proposals are a reasonable compromise with supporters of prescription-only laws.

"The one thing we'll always say 'no' to is prescription-only legislation," said Carlos Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. "We feel this is a way for us to come to the table with a proactive solution."

Missouri's current law allows a person to purchase products containing up to 9 grams of pseudoephedrine in a 30-day period and up to 108 grams in a single year. The new legislation would lower those limits to 7.5 grams and 75 grams, respectively.

Pseudoephedrine is an active ingredient in several cold medicines but can also be used as a key ingredient in making meth. Several types of decongestant medicines contain 30 milligrams of pseudoephedrine hydrochloride per capsule or pill as their active ingredient.

Last year, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill that would have required a prescription for anyone to buy pseudoephedrine, but the measure died in the Senate. The CHPA opposed that legislation with television ads, saying it would be unfair to make law-abiding citizens pay for a doctor's visit to treat a simple cold.

State Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said he filed this year's legislation based on suggestions from the CHPA. The group is also backing legislation in Kentucky bill.

Similar to the legislation in Missouri, the Kentucky proposal has a 7.5-gram monthly limit, but the proposed annual limit in that state would be 60 grams. The Kentucky bill, sponsored by state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, would only apply the prescription requirement to people who have been convicted of methamphetamine-related felonies.

Legislation aimed at making pseudoephedrine prescription-only failed in Missouri, Kentucky and 15 other states last year, in part due to critical ads run by the CHPA. Two prescription-only bills have been filed in Kentucky this year, but Yonts said his bill to reduce monthly and annual limits was a "middle-of-the-road solution."

"It prosecutes the bad guys while making sure people don't have to go to the doctor or an emergency room for a sniffle," he said in a phone interview Friday.

Missouri had 1,889 meth lab busts and seizures through November 2011, the latest period for which statistics are available from the State Highway Patrol. Missouri had the highest number of such incidents in the country in that period, followed by Indiana, which saw 1,150 busts. Kentucky had 783 incidents through November.

The Missouri Pharmacy Association, which had also come out against last year's prescription-only bill in Missouri, also signaled it would support Cox's legislation.

"I think this gives us a lot more teeth," said Ron Fitzwater, the MPA's chief executive officer. "It helps law enforcement and still allows legitimate customers to make their purchases."

Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner, the head of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit, criticized Cox's bill as not doing enough to bring down that statewide number.

Grellner, who has backed prescription-only bills in the past, said the new limits would be ineffective in stopping the production of meth, which is often manufactured in clandestine labs in people's homes or cars using a volatile combination of ingredients. He said lowering legal limits and enhancing the state's tracking system will not help with the problem of "smurfing," in which meth makers use several different IDs to rack up purchases or simply repurchase medicine from other people.

He said a box of Sudafed pills, sold in stores for about $10, can fetch about 10 times as much on the black market. Grellner said that can provide quick cash for people who are jobless, on a fixed income or addicted to other drugs.

"It's not just narcotics traffickers who are making these purchases," he said. "I've got mothers and fathers who are buying it for their teenage children thinking that they're trying to help them, and then the children are turning around and reselling it."

Grellner said groups like the CHPA are backing lower limits and increased tracking as a means of protecting their profits. He cited figures he collected in Washington, Mo., the seat of Franklin County, which passed a local prescription-only ordinance in 2009. Grellner's figures show that sales of products containing pseudoephedrine fell by 94 percent after the ordinance passed.

Gutierrez denied that the industry's position was motivated by profits, saying the industry sees its highest sales figures in states with relatively few meth-related incidents.

The new limits in Cox's legislation would include purchases a person makes in other states. Cox conceded that approach is somewhat limited, because not all states use the same tracking system. Arkansas, for example, uses a different system that would not be included in Missouri totals.

Cox also said pharmacies will not have a legal obligation to check a customer's criminal records when they make a purchase. But he said it will be a felony if someone with a criminal record is found to have made such a purchase without a prescription. The bill also would increase penalties for people who commit drug-related felonies while in possession of a firearm.

"In every activity that we consider anti-social, there will be people who are creative enough to do it," Cox said. "The intent of the law is to make it more difficult."

 


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