If something isn’t done now about the prevalence of methamphetamine in Kentucky, “We’re going to lose a generation.” That was one of the jarring comments from one of the public officials who discussed ways to limit access to pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, Monday evening on KET’s Kentucky Tonight.
The issue is one of the most contentious in the legislative session that began last week. There are two bills on the table aimed at quashing the problem, both sponsored by House Democrats.
Rep. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville would make pseudoephedrine available only by prescription, but exempt the gel-cap version of the decongestant. Her bill would expire in three years, to give legislators an opportunity to assess its effectiveness.
Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville would merely require the 5,500 Kentuckians who have already been convicted on a meth-related charge to have a prescription for the drug.
Belcher argued on the program that Yonts’ bill “doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t do the job,” because meth cooks can pay others to buy the drug over the counter, while Yonts said his bill is a “middle ground” compromise. He asked, “Do we punish the whole population of Kentucky or do we punish those who have violated the law?”
Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson called into the program and sided with Belcher, saying “As far as putting the crooks on a banned list, that’s not going to help the problem.” Chris Cohron, Warren County commonwealth’s attorney, said officers with the Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association “overwhelmingly support” Belcher’s effort.
Maj. Tony King of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office took an opposing view In order for pseudoephedrine to be made available only by prescription, it must be reclassified as a legend drug, he said, but those drugs are not tracked by MethCheck — the system that instantly tracks pseudoephedrine purchases at the point of sale — but by KASPER, the state’s slower system for monitoring prescription drug abuse. “We will lose the ability to track these people and we will lose the ability track these labs,” he said.
Meth-lab numbers continue to go up in Kentucky, reaching nearly 1,100 in 2010. Cohron said that is not the case in Oregon, one of two states that has passed a prescription law. He noted that in 2004, there were 472 labs in Oregon and 571 in Kentucky. In 2010, there were 13 in Oregon, and nearly 1,100 in Kentucky. Still, Yonts said Belcher’s bill would punish people in all Kentucky counties for the problems of a relatively few counties.
Yonts argued MethCheck is working now, and his bill would merely strengthen what’s in place. He said MethCheck stopped more than 14,000 attempts to buy pseudoephedrine last year. “All our surrounding states will very quickly have our system,” he said. “CVS and Walgreens will inter-connect. It’s a system that instantly verifies. It works.” Cohron countered that 100,000 attempts were blocked in Oklahoma, which has a similar system, “but meth labs are still going up by 10 percent a year there. “Being reactive instead of blocking it is not going to solve the problem,” he said.
Some callers to the show said Belcher’s bill should not exempt gel caps, from which pseudoephedrine is more difficult to produce. Belcher acknowledged her bill is also a compromise and that 97 percent of meth labs use the pill version. Yonts said exempting the gel caps “just opens the door to another problem.”
Panelists also discussed the issue of cost. Yonts said the state stands to lose up to $1 million in tax revenue if pseudoephedrine is reclassified as a legend drug, because prescription medication is not subject to sales tax. Belcher said the cost will be far greater, $1 million in manpower alone. “If we’re looking at a tight budget, I’d certainly like to take that $1 million and use it for something that is more productive,” she said.
Both Yonts and Belcher said they expect their bills to be heard in committee soon. In the meantime, Cohron, who said a generation is at stake if nothing is done, underscored the importance of dealing with the issue without being romanced by drug companies and lobbyists. “We’re talking about a billion-dollar industry,” he said. “They will spare no expense and they will stop at nothing to defeat it because it a billion dollars on the line.”
Kentucky Health News is a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.