Tenn. meth law held up as success before N.C. House committee

By: - June 29, 2005 5:11 am

Wilmington StarNews Online

Associated Press Writer
A 39 percent decline in methamphetamine lab busts in Tennessee shows a new law to restrict cold tablet sales to pharmacy counters would work in North Carolina, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director said Tuesday.

"This legislation is about saving lives and saving children," director Mark Gwyn told a House judiciary panel debating the idea, as well as another method to tighten criminal access to the pills.

The Senate has approved a bill backed by Attorney General Roy Cooper that would require consumers to show a photo identification at the pharmacy counters to purchase tablets that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.

The medicine would be kept behind the counter in part to curb the production of meth in clandestine labs in North Carolina. Meth-makers "cook" the stimulant out of the tablets.

North Carolina law enforcement busted 322 meth labs in 2004, compared to nine five years earlier. The State Bureau of Investigation is on pace to surpass last year’s total.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration records released last week showed 82 labs were seized in May following passage of the "Meth-Free Tennessee Act," compared to 134 in May 2004. The law is modeled after an Oklahoma law approved last year, which has led to a 70 percent to 80 percent drop in meth labs seized.

Several members of the judiciary committee sounded sympathetic to another bill that would keep the medicines in a locked cabinet behind a store counter, but not under a pharmacist’s control.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson, the bill’s co-sponsor, said law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be punished because criminals abuse a legal product. Many small towns in his district don’t have late-night pharmacies where they can purchase these tablets, he said.

"Let the people who need to relieve suffering have access to it," Haire said. His bill would still limit the number of packages that a consumer could purchase at once.

Haire said that several states have chosen similar less restrictive methods to control sales of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. But Cooper argued that those laws haven’t yet been enacted.

The Target and Wal-Mart retail chains, as well as the CVS and Rite Aid drugstores, announced this year they would put the cold tablets behind the pharmacy counter.

Gwyn warned that Tennessee meth manufacturers may relocate to a less restrictive state.

"If we toughen our laws in Tennessee, they’re coming to North Carolina," he said. "You can bet on that."

But panel members said they wanted more information before making a decision.

While liquid and gel forms of the drug wouldn’t be subject to either bill, Rep. Rick Eddins, R-Wake, said it’s hard to swallow some of those types of cold remedies.

"The ones that I take are like horse (pills)," he said.

Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, the panel’s chairman, said a subcommittee would be formed to make recommendations to the full committee.

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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