Ind. unlikely to make cold meds prescription-only

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The leaders of Indiana communities hit hard by methamphetamine are arguing for a state law requiring prescriptions to buy cold and allergy pills that contain the key meth ingredient of pseudoephedrine.

But opponents of the prescription requirement say it would be a more expensive and time consuming step for law-abiding citizens that isn't a proven way to stem the spread of meth abuse.

Indiana has long been at the center of the national meth epidemic and had the third-most meth lab seizures of any state last year. State lawmakers are considering a proposal to tighten existing limits on pseudoephedrine purchases, but mayors and some police groups say that even tougher steps are needed as communities face explosions and toxic chemical cleanups tied to meth cooking.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke plans to testify before an Indiana House committee on Wednesday about the troubles that meth production have caused in his city, where the number of meth labs found has jumped from 20 or 30 several years ago to more than 100 each of the past two years.

Winnecke calls meth the No. 1 public safety problem in the state's third-largest city, citing the fires, explosions and contaminations stemming from production of the illegal drug.

"It's enormously time consuming," he said. "It's outrageously expensive."

A bill pending in the House and approved by the state Senate last month would allow a consumer to buy up to 61 grams a year of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Current law limits purchases to 7.2 grams a month.

The proposal also would require all stores selling medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine to use a computerized system to track sales. A state law adopted two years ago requires pharmacies to use that tracking system, but convenience stores that sell only small packages are exempt.

Lawmakers over the last few years have declined to require prescriptions for the cold medicines.

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said he didn't believe people with allergies and occasional illnesses should face the additional costs and hassles of getting prescriptions and that those people would still be able to buy enough medicine under the tighter limits proposed under the bill he's sponsoring.

"To innocent people who need it, those limits aren't going to come into play," Yoder said. "But for those people who are buying this product to make meth, those limits will come into play because they need to buy stuff and get as much as they can."

Federal law requires stores to keep pseudoephedrine-based products behind the counter, and two states -- Mississippi and Oregon -- require a prescription.

Those states have seen huge drops in meth lab seizures, with Oregon having nine and Mississippi having five last year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Indiana had 1,429 meth lab incidents reported by police last year -- trailing only Missouri and Tennessee.

Yoder's bill would also increase the criminal penalties for a person convicted of buying 10 grams or more of the medications and then providing it to a meth maker. The proposal would make that action -- known as "smurfing" -- punishable by two to eight years in prison.

Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, and a few other lawmakers introduced bills this year seeking to require prescriptions for the pseudoephedrine-based medications.

Those bills didn't advance, and Kubacki said she didn't expect enough lawmakers agreed with her yet to take that step.

Kubacki said the constant discovery of meth labs in many rural communities hurts their ability to attract new residents and businesses and burdens local governments with many expenses.

"The cost to an individual for what they'd pay for pseudoephedrine is nothing compared to what we're paying to put these people in jail, then deal with their horrible physical problems, those kids who are put in social services at taxpayer expense," she said. "The taxpayer pays tenfold what you would for making one doctor visit."

State police estimate that the average cleanup cost for a meth lab is about $2,280, not including costs for social service agencies, jail time or medical care, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Winnecke, the Evansville mayor, said he supported the tighter limits included in the current legislative proposal. He said didn't expect the Legislature to agree on requiring pseudoephedrine prescriptions this year but that it was important for local officials to continue explaining the situation they face.

"If we don't have meth labs to run down, (police) can do more intervention work, they could do more investigative work," he said. "We could deploy those resources in other ways that still battle drug problems."

Kubacki said she expects support for tougher anti-meth measures to continue to grow in the Legislature -- including for pseudoephedrine prescription requirements.

"I'll bring it back next year," she said. "Because I can guarantee we'll have more meth addicts next year, we're going to have more children taken out of homes and we're going to have more houses burned."

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