California may require prescriptions for allergy pills amid meth lab concerns

From the San Jose Mercury News:

You've been getting your Sudafed, Zyrtec-D and Claritin-D over the counter for years, but that could change Jan. 1 if a state bill to combat methamphetamine use becomes law.

California lawmakers are looking at requiring prescriptions for popular over-the-counter cold and allergy medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the illicit manufacture of meth.

The Senate passed the bill 22-10, sending it to the Assembly for consideration. If it's passed and gets the governor's signature, consumers would have two choices: Go to the doctor or change their medicine of choice.

Although hotly contested between law enforcement advocates and health organizations, the legislation isn't widely known among people waiting in line at their local pharmacy.

"I don't need another co-pay," said Mary Dolan, a 51-year-old Sacramento resident. "My co-pay went up last year. And with the economy and insurance costs these days, I just don't think there should be any undue burdens on consumers getting the medicine they want."

Dolan, like millions of other people, uses drugs containing pseudoephedrine to combat seasonal sniffles, the occasional cold and sinus problems.

Lawmakers supporting the change and law-enforcement agencies say fighting meth labs — a growing problem in the state — is of paramount importance to public safety.

He added that federal sales restrictions have not solved the problem. In 2006, the U.S. government limited individual purchases to no more than 3.5 grams of pseudoephedrine in one day, required retailers to ask for identification before making sales, and required them to keep a log of all sales.

"Most meth is made with pseudoephedrine that is legally purchased," Wright said. "So we need to slow down their source of material."

Senate Bill 484, modeled after a 2006 Oregon law, is expected to stop the practice of "smurfing" — when meth makers hire five to six people to drive around to different pharmacies that sell pseudoephedrine products and buy the maximum legal amount at each location. A day's worth of smurfing could result in enough pseudoephedrine to make $20,000 worth of meth, officials said.

"After we passed the bill, Oregon went from having about 40 meth lab incidents a month to three active meth lab incidents per year in both 2007 and 2008," said Rob Bovette, the district attorney from rural Lincoln County, Ore., and author of that state's bill. "We've completely eliminated smurfing, and we've nearly eliminated meth labs."

The federal legislation has had a chilling effect. In 2008, California reported 346 meth lab incidents — ranging from seizing an active meth lab to cleaning up toxic remnants. In 2004, before the federal law took effect, California authorities recorded 764 meth lab responses.

Advocates, however, point out that the number of meth lab incidents reported last year increased from 2007. They also argue that while the bill may pose inconveniences for consumers, meth labs pose dangers to entire communities.

"In addition to serving as a (manufacturing) point for meth, they're likely to blow up," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for law enforcement organizations including the California Peace Officers Association. "They can cause enormous toxic waste pollution in a community, people who are exposed to the meth fumes, particularly children, can be severely damaged, and, of course, they are the manufacturing points for meth."

Lovell added that there are countless alternatives for consumers looking to stop their allergy and cold symptoms.

"There are at least 30 and as many as 100 cold medications that do not use pseudoephedrine," Lovell said. "When the law went into effect in Oregon, many consumers just switched (medications)."

But consumers say they use the medications containing pseudoephedrine because they are more effective in relieving the nasal congestion associated with colds and allergies.  

Posted: 6/18/2009 9:57:00 AM

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