By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — “To tell you that we have a meth crisis in North Carolina is to speak of the obvious,” Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) told members of the House Judiciary B Subcommittee Wednesday. “We are on track right now to have more than 400 meth labs in the state this year, double the number of last year. The cost to North Carolina is incalculable in crime, cleanup and environmental disasters, to say nothing of personal destruction.”
He challenged fellow lawmakers to tackle this epidemic by depriving methamphetamine makers of their main ingredient — pseudoephedrine — via House Bill 12 (Proposed Committee Substitute not yet posted online for viewing) which would make the drug a Schedule III substance.
A compound found in some cold, cough and allergy medicines (Sudafed, Claritin, Triaminic, Allegra, to name a few), pseudoephedrine was sold only by prescription in North Carolina until 1976, when it became available on the pharmacy shelf. In 2005, when lawmakers realized it was being misused to manufacture a highly addictive street drug known as “speed,” “chalk” or “meth,” they passed legislation to put it behind the counter, limited the quantities sold at one time and require a photo I.D. and signature for purchase.
While he applauded that effort, Rep. Horn said the law has still fallen short and that it’s time to join Oregon and Mississippi by putting the 15 to 17 pseudoephedrine-containing medicines back in a prescription bottle to keep them out of the hands of meth makers.
Horn said Oregon passed a similar law in 2006 and that by 2010, the number of meth labs reported had dropped to 13. So far this year, he said there had only been one meth lab discovered. Mississippi reported a 67 percent drop in meth labs after the first six months of its adoption of a prescription-only law, a statistic confirmed by Lt. Eddie Hawkins with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.
Hawkins said between July 1, 2009 and May 24, 2010, authorities in Mississippi destroyed 879 meth labs and rescued 188 children from the premises. Between July 1, 2010 and May 24, 2011, they halted the operation of just 305 labs and rescued 45 children.
“This is a very good law. It has slowed the meth labs down,” Hawkins said.
The State Bureau of Investigation’s Van Shaw would love to see that happen here. He said the Meth Lab Prevention Act in 2005 had temporarily helped decrease the meth problem in North Carolina, but that the number of labs had begun a gradual increase as meth manufacturers figured out ways to sidestep the restrictions via fake IDs and store hopping.
Add to that the growing ease with which meth is made via a one-pot method and the fact that the SBI has lost the federal funding that once helped cover cleanup costs, which average some $2,500 per site, and Shaw said we’re headed toward the “perfect storm.” More than $630,000 in federal funds was needed last year just to clean up the lab sites in North Carolina.
Hawkins and Shaw were among at least four law enforcement officials who begged the committee to move ahead with the bill. They heard the same requests from members of the Sampson County Meth Task Force and from Dr. Praveen Arla, who told lawmakers there are 137 alternatives to pseudoephedrine, many of which have fewer side effects and precautions.
“While we understand that changing the status of a medication that some people use legitimately is something to consider, the truth is this bill makes sense, especially when you consider how easily the substance is being transformed into such a dangerous concoction,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Granted, there would be some minor inconveniences for customers who legitimately wish to purchase the medication. However, the small sacrifices made would save many lives, significantly reduce crime, reduce law enforcement, incarceration and environmental costs. Moreover, it’s really hard to argue with success and the state’s that have done this show tremendous progress in the war against one of the most dangerous illegal substances of our time – meth. We hope lawmakers will move quickly on this matter and protect the public’s health.”
But the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and proponents of electronic monitoring systems told lawmakers a different story.
Carlos Guiterrez, with the CHPA, said the bill would penalize law abiding citizens and cost the state $1 million in lost sales tax revenue. He said although 20 states have debated the issue, only two have chosen to make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug. A better option, he said would be electronic monitoring of purchases, which could be done at no cost to the state, nor to retailers. He further stated that a poll had shown that seven of 10 individuals opposed prescription status for the drug.
Elizabeth Robinson with the Retail Merchants Association said that House Bill 12 would increase overall healthcare costs because allergy sufferers who might take a pseudoephedrine product on a regular basis would have to see their physician to get a prescription. She also recommended electronic monitoring by which a statewide system would record who bought pseudoephedrine where and how much was purchased and send up a red flag if the same person tried to purchase again too soon. Tennessee and South Carolina have adopted such systems.
But Sheriff Rick Davis of Henderson County said successful electronic monitoring is “pure fantasy.”
He described a recent raid on a meth lab in his area and the continuing probe which he said could lead to charges against as many as 50 people, some of whom may have innocently purchased the product for a friend or neighbor who claimed to be too ill to do so for himself. He said the paper trail showed 12 locations that were falling prey to so-called “smurfs” who purchased the drug to hand over to lab operators.
Although the Judiciary B Subcommittee did not vote on the measure Wednesday, Chairman Sarah Stevens (R-Alleghany) said she anticipates they will do so this coming week.
Meanwhile, she assigned Rep. David Guice (R-Henderson) to lead a committee made up of Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford), Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), Rep. Dan Ingle (R-Alamance) Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly) and herself to further investigate the issue and meet with Rep. Horn to follow up on the bill.
“Electronic tracking is a step. It will help us find more meth labs if that’s our goal so that we can arrest more people, send more people to the hospital, fill up the jails, take up the court time or we can just stop it,” Horn insisted, later adding. “…We can do sort of the job or we can do the job.”
If approved, the bill would take effect Dec. 1.