Lawmakers seek to close the meth pipeline in WV - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Lawmakers seek to close the meth pipeline in WV

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Making laws often involves compromise, but one of the more thinly drawn lines is made at pharmacy counters throughout the state. 

Is the customer standing on the other side of the counter a cold sufferer? Or is he or she a meth maker?

That question has stumped retailers, law enforcement officials and lawmakers alike who have spent the past few years trying to control access to ingredients used to make methamphetamine while also providing necessary medication to cold and allergy suffers.

This year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin hung his legislative agenda on a hook of creating jobs, with a supporting beam of tackling drug abuse. 

The two issues go hand in hand in West Virginia because many employers say they can't find enough workers who are clean and sober.

Senate Bill 437, Tomblin's drug abuse proposal, unanimously passed the Senate on Feb. 29, with a vote of 34-0 after a lot of give and take in the month it spent in committees.

Getting Out of Committee

"This is the most comprehensive bill we've ever had before us to handle a problem that has affected many families, including mine," said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, whose brother is the Wayne County prosecutor and attended a recent committee meeting where the drug abuse bill was discussed. "Let's get on with this bill down on the floor."

On the Senate side alone, the measure was debated and amended in the Health and Human Resources Committee, then Judiciary and then Finance.

The measure addresses chronic pain management, database reporting, advisory and review committees, the use of a Multi-State Real-Time Tracking System and opioid treatment program facilities.

The Judiciary Committee changes resulted in the need for at least two full-time employees for the state Board of Pharmacy at a cost of about $110,000 each year, resulting in the measure's reference to the finance committee.

The committee also voted to allow all members of law enforcement to have access to records of who is buying pseudoephedrine, a sinus medication that often is used to create meth.

The West Virginia Sheriff's Association agreed to have that stipulation, a sticky debate among several lawmakers, removed from the bill in exchange for a resolution that proposes a study to try to negotiate that access back at some point.

Another back-and forth debate in both the Judiciary and Finance committees was over the amount of pseudoephedrine that should be allowed to be sold over the counter in a 30-day period.

How Much Medicine?

As the state struggles with what some have said is a drug epidemic, efforts to curb the crisis have been many, but successes have been few.

Medicines containing pseudoephedrine were moved behind the pharmacist's counter in 2005, when the state started talking about meth labs – rudimentary drug labs made up of common household materials, such as nail polish remover, batteries, and pseudoephedrine. The labs often cause explosions, and meth makers are creating the drug in new ways, such as inside plastic, 2-liter bottles.

Customers currently have to ask pharmacists for the drug, and their personal information is recorded to limit their purchases per month. Last year, a measure that would require a prescription for pseudoephedrine came close to becoming law, but did not make it through both chambers of the Legislature.

Lt. Mike Goff with the West Virginia State Police said the state's meth lab numbers continue to mount at a record pace. In the first 54 days of 2012, he was made aware of 59 labs, a number he said might be even higher.

"We've never seen the numbers spread across the state like they are right now," Goff said. "So if you can eliminate the access, then you can eliminate the meth lab problem."

Lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee voted the bill out of the committee after Goff's testimony on Feb. 27, the same day several labs were found at a motel in Kanawha County. The discovery of the labs caused the entire motel to be condemned. The discovery brought the number of labs in Kanawha County to 22 so far this year.

Tomblin's original bill was introduced with the same limits as federal pseudoephedrine limits, which is 9 grams per month. The judiciary committee dropped that limit to 3.6 grams per month, but the finance committee was tasked with agreeing to a limit of 7.5 grams per month. 

Kimberly Becker, a family physician in residency at Marshall University, told Finance Committee members that 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine is enough for a person to take the medication around the clock for 15 days. She said 7.5 grams is enough to be taken around the clock for about a month. Becker said no one should take pseudoephedrine for more than seven days without consulting a physician or pharmacist because of the health conditions it could aggravate or create.

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, who also is a physician, proposed dropping the limits back down to the lower levels of 3.6 grams per month, arguing that the state needed to take a tough stance against making meth.

His amendment failed, and the bill was presented to the full Senate on Feb. 29 with a limit of 7.5 grams of pseudoephedrine permitted per month.

Tracking the Sales

West Virginia Retailers Association President Bridget Lambert has had a lot to say about the issue throughout the years. The association represents retailers throughout the state, including pharmacies.

"We are supporting the electronic monitoring program," Lambert said. "West Virginia has a prescription drug problem, and those come from prescriptions that are written, taken to a pharmacy and legally filled."

Lambert said Virginia is on its way to implementing a real-time electronic monitoring system, and lawmakers in Ohio and Pennsylvania are debating adding it as well, which would lock West Virginia's borders. Lambert said she does not want to take a negative stance on the measure, but her organization is against requiring pseudoephedrine to have a prescription.

"We have an obligation to fill a prescription when it comes in the door, and that sale is reported to the controlled system database at the Board of Pharmacy, but it's already out on the street," Lambert said. 

"With this electronic tracking system that is proposed and we support, we have the ability to stop fills at the register. When a person reaches their limit or comes close the limit, there's a stop in the system that says it's an invalid sale."

So far during this legislative session, three amendments were proposed and rejected to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

Elizabeth Funderburk, senior director of communications and public affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said she applauds the bill.

"The governor's legislation aggressively targets criminals and protects law-abiding West Virginians' access to popular and reliable medicines containing pseudoephedrine – medicines like Advil Cold & Sinus, Allegra-D, Claritin-D, Mucinex D and Sudafed," Funderburk said. "We support aggressive and effective measures to address the methamphetamine problem in West Virginia and believe the real-time blocking of illegal pseudoephedrine sales before they happen is the right solution."

Lambert said she will stay vigilant through the rest of the bill's process because she is also concerned about the monthly limits.

"When it comes to 3.5 grams, that is not a good number. It is not what the bill needs," she said. "There are a lot of chronic sufferers in the valley with a need for allergy medicines."

Lambert said she is just one of many people in West Virginia who recognize a large prescription drug problem, and she is hopeful that implementing real-time tracking will increase the divide between cold sufferers and meth makers.

 

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