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Senate rejects pseudoephedrine bill

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Senate rejects pseudoephedrine bill

Picture of Alison Knezevich
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette
Thursday, March 10, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On a tie vote, state senators on Thursday rejected a proposal to require a prescription for cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

The bill (HB2946) was meant to cut down on the production of methamphetamine, which police say is rising in West Virginia. Pseudoephedrine is a key meth-making ingredient. The House of Delegates passed the measure last week by a vote of 77-23.

Law enforcement officials and several medical organizations had pushed for the bill, pointing to the dangers meth lab explosions pose to the public. The drug industry and retailers lobbied against it, arguing that a prescription requirement would burden patients and drive up health care costs.

On Thursday, more than 50 uniformed police officers and paramedics filled the Senate gallery to watch the vote.

Senators voted 16-16 on the bill, with two members absent. Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, has been acting as governor and has not voted in the Senate all session.

Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, also was absent. Helmick entered the Senate chamber shortly after the vote, and said he was attending a luncheon for his grandson when the vote was taken.

After the vote, Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford said senators lost a chance to set an example for the country. Only two states -- Oregon and Mississippi -- require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, and a number of other states now are considering such a law.

"I'm highly disappointed," Rutherford said.

Some legislators might not have the meth problem that Kanawha County has, Rutherford said.

"Believe me, it will come," he said, "and when it happens, they will see the devastation that meth labs bring to us."

Rutherford also blamed drug-industry lobbying for the bill's failure. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the makers of over-the-counter drugs, had waged a media campaign that included newspaper, radio and Internet ads, as well as automated phone calls urging West Virginians to call their state lawmakers. 

"Quite frankly, I think that we ran up against an organization that had a lot of money and threw everything they could throw at us," Rutherford said. "I think that was a major problem."

Later Thursday, Sen. Dan Foster said he would look into whether there is any way to revive the measure before the legislative session ends Saturday.

"We're contemplating some strategy," the Kanawha County Democrat said. "We're trying to figure out what our options are."

Foster spoke in favor of the legislation, saying it would make a big dent in what he called an epidemic of meth abuse in West Virginia.

"It's clear to me that this is as close to a silver bullet as we can find," he said. 

Foster, a physician, said there are more than 125 medications people can use that work just as well as pseudoephedrine.

Pseudoephedrine was a prescription-only drug before the late 1970s, Foster said, later adding that West Virginia has a high proportion of residents who shouldn't use the product -- including those with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Foster and other supporters pointed to results in Oregon and Mississippi, which experienced dramatic declines in the number of meth labs after requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine. 

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, questioned why the bill had not been sent to the Senate Finance Committee.

The state Public Employees Insurance Agency had estimated that the proposal would cost between $400,000 and $800,000 for insurance claims.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, said lawmakers should consider the cost of cleaning up meth labs and vote in favor of the bill.

"These are deemed basically hazardous waste areas," he said of meth labs. "This is not just, come in and sweep the floor and change the sheets."

In 2005, West Virginia put pseudoephedrine behind the counter and limited how much people could buy. Police say that has led to "smurfing," where people in a meth-making ring each buy the legal limit of pseudoephedrine.

Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, said the prescription requirement would infringe on West Virginians' freedom. He also questioned its potential effectiveness in reducing meth labs, suggesting that the state could use electronic tracking of drug sales to catch meth makers.

"I don't think this is even close to a silver bullet," he said.

Nohe referred to a quote by Ronald Reagan, saying that "freedom is just a generation away from extinction."

"This is the United States of America," he said later, his voice rising. "We don't buckle to criminals."

Reach Alison Knezevich at alis...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.