The Indiana State Legislature’s Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee is meeting September 8th to discuss the effects of methamphetamines on state and local government, as well as the enforcement costs related to the drug.
The committee will also look at two competing ways of dealing with the issue of regulating pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter medicine used in the production of meth.
One proposed solution is making pseudoephedrine, also called PSE, a prescription-only drug. This method is supported by law enforcement officials in Terre Haute. There, agency members have started encouraging pharmacies in Vigo County and surrounding areas to require a prescription before selling pseudoephedrine- even though it’s not required by state law.
Locally owned pharmacies have jumped on board the prescription-only push. However, corporate pharmacies in the area, Walmart, K-Mart, Kroger, Walgreens and CVS are supporting an electronic tracking system.
Indiana Retail Council President Grant Monahan represents those 5 pharmacies. He says an electronic tracking system shores up many of the holes in the current paper tracking system. Anytime a customer shows their ID to purchase pseudoephedrine, their information will be sent to a central data point that all pharmacies can access.
“And that central data point,” Monahan explained, “would instantaneously give back to the clerk or the pharmacist information on whether that person has purchased within the legal time frame. And if they had made a recent purchase, the system would issue a stop alert.”
Under the current tracking system, all purchasing information is kept on paper logs and the information is not shared between pharmacies. This has led to a loop-hole where meth producers can move from pharmacy to pharmacy, purchasing the maximum amount of pseudoephedrine allowed by law at each pharmacy.
There was a strong push earlier this year for the electronic tracking system Monahan says. “There was legislation in the Indiana General Assembly last session with Senate Bill 285 that we supported that would have implemented a statewide electronic tracking system. In that situation, the bill passed the Senate but died in the Indiana House of Representatives.”
Monahan says an electronic system provides good middle ground between the current law and a prescription only law. However, Terre Haute Police Sergeant Chris Gallagher, a strong supporter of making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, is skeptical of electronic tracking system, calling the system “just bells and whistles on a system that is already not working.”
Gallagher adds that as long as a meth cook has multiple people buying pseudoephedrine for them, enough can be bought within the legal weekly limit to make plenty of meth. When you look at the big picture, a lot of the debate really comes down to cost. Terre Haute State Senator Tim Skinner says Indiana’s meth problem is costing the state “millions and millions of dollars.” According to the Indiana State Police, he says, “maybe even billions.”
Actually, the Indiana University Center for Health Policy estimates that meth cost the state $1.87 billion in 2005. The center extrapolated that number from the RAND Drug Policy and Research Center’s estimate that meth cost the entire country $23.4 billion in 2005.
This money is spent on cleaning up meth labs, putting children taken from meth homes into the foster care system, and law enforcement, among other issues.
Gallagher says that jail overcrowding has skyrocketed and providing health care for meth addicts, who often suffer from a laundry list of health issues associated with drug use, is a huge drain on the purses of tax payers. However, Monahan says that the prescription-only system comes with its costs too.
“I can’t speak for the doctor’s whose offices will be flooded by people who are only there to get a prescription,” he says. “If it went prescription, it causes our members to treat these products differently.”
Monahan says that prescription drugs require more security and administrative procedures- all of which cost extra money. He’s concerned those costs will not only affect retailers, but will also greatly increase the overall cost of health care.
However, Gallagher says as long as people get an annual physical, he’s spoken to doctors who will be willing to call in a prescription for patients they are familiar with. He’s confident it will be difficult to abuse the system since meth addicts are notorious for not seeking proper medical care and because someone requesting excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine will send up red flags to their physician.
As of right now, the Indiana State Medical Association has not taken an official stance, but has concerns regarding the impact on patients and primary care physicians in scheduling appointments and handling co-pays.
As the prescription-only initiative waits in limbo, Senator Skinner is hesitant to predict whether it’s viable legislation. “This thing is a slow process,” he says. “And I think that this is a pretty radical thing, what is being asked to do is a radical thing.”
However, Skinner says, if tracking legislation offers any insight, the process may be long but any legislation that comes from it will be stronger for the debate.