State lawmakers want to limit access to cold medicines

By: - June 29, 2005 5:08 am

Fayetteville Observer
By Michael Wagner
Staff writer

RALEIGH – State lawmakers agree that limiting access to cold medicine could slow the production of methamphetamine, but they question how those restrictions would be implemented.

A House judiciary committee Tuesday debated two bills that take different approaches regarding the availability of pseudoephedrine tablets – a key ingredient in methamphetamine.

One bill would make the tablets available from a licensed pharmacist only. The other would pull the tablets from store shelves and place them in a locked safe controlled by store employees.

Neither would require a prescription, but both would require customers to show a valid photo ID.

Pseudoephedrine in liquid capsules or gels, which are usually larger and sometimes harder to swallow than caplets, would still be available on retail store shelves under both bills.

A special subcommittee has been appointed to study the issue further.

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, will be chairman of the committee.

"There’s no question in my mind that we’ve got to very decisively address the incredibly pervasive methamphetamine problem in the state and in this part of the country," Glazier said.

He declined to endorse either bill, but said, "No possible solution is off the table right now."

The bill requiring a pharmacist to dispense the tablets has passed the Senate and has the backing of state Attorney General Roy Cooper.

The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Phil Haire, a Democrat from Sylva, is intended to ensure the medication is widely available in smaller communities, where there are fewer pharmacies with limited hours.

Sen. Walter Dalton, a Rutherford County Democrat, sponsored the Senate bill.

He said retail employees would not be as responsible as pharmacists in complying with the law.

In states that have tried that approach, Cooper said, the results were poor, and the tablets eventually were moved to the pharmacy counter.

More than 10 states have passed similar legislation, Dalton said.

In North Carolina, most busts of methamphetamine labs happen in the western part of the state. In the east, Sampson County lawmen have busted seven meth labs so far this year, the most in the region.

Legislation supported

Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said he would support any legislation that would limit access to the cold tablets.

"If it will discourage those items from being used to manufacture methamphetamine, I’m all for it," Thornton said. "It would also make them reluctant to even try."

Thornton said his county has been aggressive in attacking the methamphetamine problem, which doesn’t mean other counties in the region are without high concentrations of rural drug labs.

"I don’t think we are unique and are the only ones that have the problem," he said.

Critics of the legislation include retailers who say the law would severely limit the public’s access to a widely-used and legal medicine.

Rep. Karen Ray, a Mooresville Republican, said she doubted that any method would be an effective deterrent.

"Look at how they go across state lines now to get lottery tickets," Ray said. "Imagine what they’ll do to get pseudoephedrine. They are going to find a way."

Supporters of the bill say there is no doubt the legislation reduces meth production.

In Tennessee, pseudoephedrine was pulled from store shelves and placed behind the pharmacy counter in March.

Since then, the rate of meth lab busts has dropped 39 percent, said Mark Gwynn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Oklahoma saw a drop of about 80 percent after it passed legislation restricting access to the drug.

"We let it get to epidemic proportions before we did something about it," Gwynn told the committee.

Tennessee had 1,574 meth lab busts in 2004, compared to 323 in North Carolina.

Cooper said North Carolina’s numbers are rising. Lawmen made nine busts in 1999.

He said North Carolina may be the only state on the East Coast that’s considering this type of legislation. But it’s also the only state on the East Coast with a significant meth problem.

"This is a small sacrifice for a great public safety benefit," Cooper said.

Staff writer Michael Wagner can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 828-7641

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066