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Legislation To End Meth Production Focuses On Pharmacist Intervention, Prescriptions

Drew Daudelin

Several bills pending in the 2016 General Assembly aim to put an end to meth labs in the state.

One proposal classifies drugs containing pseudoephedrine – a key ingredient of meth - prescription-only.

Another empowers pharmacists to turn away suspicious customers.

Both bills are based on rules that have seen some success in reducing meth production, like Harry Webb’s Family Pharmacy in Rochester, Indiana.

A sign behind the prescription pick-up counter reads, “We are proud to be part of the solution to reduce meth manufacturing in Fulton County.”

It’s a testament to Webb’s success in winning passage of a local ordinance that mandates pharmacists have a conversation with customers to steer them toward alternatives.

The local law also allows them to refuse a sale if there is reason for suspicion.

“This is a citizen’s action committee,” he says. “It has no funding from anybody. It’s just all grassroots effort.”

Like many towns in Indiana, Rochester has been fighting a growing meth lab problem.

Indiana has ranked first in the nation for meth lab seizures for a number of years. And state officials expect it to remain number one when the statistics are in for 2015.

It’s a relatively new problem. In 1995, six meth labs were found in the state. Last year there were nearly 1,500.

Those numbers shot up when meth cookers started using the one-pot method – a way to produce meth in small batches with more easily obtainable ingredients.

Pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in some cold medicines, is a key ingredient.

State and federal governments have tried to ensure pseudoephedrine sales are going to the right customers.

In 2006, the federal government enacted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act and put the drugs behind the counter.

Indiana took that one step further in 2011, when it began tracking and limiting pseudoephedrine sales.

Instead of declining, the number of state meth lab seizures increased in 2012.

Delaware County Prosecutor Jeff Arnold works in the county that consistently seizes more meth labs than anywhere else in Indiana.

He says the state’s efforts actually made things worse.

“And here’s why,” Arnold says. “You are a meth cooker. You have reached your limit of pseudoephedrine that you can get for the year. I’m a friend of yours. I’ve tried meth. You either pay me or give me some of your product to go out and buy pseudoephedrine so you can cook it. As a result of that you teach me how to cook meth.”

Those friends are what are known as ‘smurfs.’  Smurf networks often go out in groups, hitting pharmacies one after another to gather as much product as they can.

Back in Fulton County, pharmacy owner Webb says the local ordinance has proven effective. Pseudoephedrine sales in the county have dropped 50 percent.

“I’ve seen the impact on what it’s doing to our community,” he says. “It’s costing our county millions of dollars. There’s another argument going around, ‘Well this isn’t going to end meth.’ And no, it isn’t going to end meth. And yes, the Mexican cartels are going to bring meth into our area. This issue is trying to end meth labs.”

Sen. Randy Head (R-Logansport) has authored a bill that would essentially turn Fulton County’s ordinance into statewide law.

“I think it’s important that we do it all over the state,” he says. “If we leave some place out that’s where all the smurfs are going to go.”

Head’s proposed bill is based on legislation passed in Arkansas four years ago.

The results there have been dramatic. Meth lab seizures before the bill were more than 300 per year. Four years later those numbers dropped 90 percent, to around 25.

Chief Operations Officer for the Arkansas Pharmacist Association Scott Pace says there was pushback at first, especially from big retailers.

“We certainly had some pharmacists that said ‘Look, we don’t want to deal with this, this has caused a problem for us.’”

Pace says years later, most seem happy with the results.

The second bill aimed at meth labs in Indiana this session is backed by House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis).

It would make pseudoephedrine drugs prescription-only.

Similar bills have been proposed before and failed. The Prosecuting Attorney Council’s Executive Director Dave Powell says they didn’t pass because of misinformation.

He says attacks on the prescription-only bill often reference “cold medicines,” as in all cold medicines. But the prescription-only bills only cover those with pseudoephedrine.

“They create this message that creates fear,” Powell says. “And it’s not an honest message.” 

Supporters of the different legislation share one common sentiment. When it comes to meth labs in Indiana, something needs to be done.

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