Mark Sirois - Johnson City Police Chief(Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
An amendment to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed bill aimed at eliminating methamphetamine production in Tennessee will allow consumers to purchase a limited amount of pseudoephedrine, the primary ingredient for meth, before requiring a prescription.
The tweak came a couple of weeks ago after Haslam met with the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch. That group — comprised of chiefs of police, sheriffs and district attorneys general from across the state — met Friday with Johnson City Press staff members to discuss legislation it hopes to get passed this session.
While the coalition would rather see an all-out prescription-only law for pseudoephedrine purchases — much like Oregon and Mississippi have implemented, which the coalition says has virtually eliminated meth labs — it’s lending support for Haslam’s proposal after he agreed to an amendment.
“His bill, the way it’s written (without the amendment) is 2.4 grams in an initial purchase, 4.8 grams on an override by a pharmacist, per month, which gives you 57.6 grams a year,” Rausch said. “That’s higher than any other state has done it. We sat down and said we felt like it needed to have a stronger limit. As a result, the governor came back and has an amendment. We support that amendment.
“He has offered up an amendment which we support. That amendment is 4.8 grams, or roughly 20 doses, as a monthly limit and an annual limit of 14.4 grams. He did away with the override.”
After a consumer in Tennessee reaches the limit -— either in a month or in a year — he or she must obtain a doctor’s prescription to get more pseudoephedrine.
Opponents of limiting pseudoephedrine purchases say the bill will place an undue burden on honest citizens who get sick. Rausch and other supporters of the bill say there are “hundreds of other medications” available to treat cold symptoms.
“If you read the label of pseudoephedrine products, it tells you if you’re still sick when you finish the box that you need to go to the doctor,” Rausch said.
Meth labs are so common, said Erwin Police Chief Reagan Tilson, that many people are now immune to the danger the labs present to public health. He’s a certified safety officer trained to handle a meth lab cleanup.
Costs associated with those cleanups are hitting law enforcement hard. Federal funding to pay for the hazardous waste disposal has dried up and state funding is limited, so those costs are passed on to the agencies when labs are found in their jurisdictions. The 1,691 meth sites located in Tennessee last year cost around $2 million for cleanup and disposal.
Cleanup isn’t the only cost associated with meth production, members of the group noted. There’s also the price taxpayers pay for the dozens of children removed from homes where meth was being made — to the tune of $7 million in 2013, Rausch said.
Then there are burn victims, homes and businesses that are devalued and need rehabbing after a lab is found there, and the increased incarceration costs due to meth users needing more medical and dental care.
“Meth mouth” is the term used to describe the mouth of a methamphetamine user. The drug causes rampant tooth decay and often the user’s teeth must be pulled. Other long-term health effects are still not known, officials said.
“We had to start paying our dentist $1,000 more a month because of meth,” Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal said.
Meth production is a battle law enforcement has been fighting for more than a decade, and despite efforts to eliminate labs, production just keeps growing. In a recent state study, Tennessee is reported as the state having the highest number of meth labs in the country. And East Tennessee leads the state for meth labs discovered, officials said.
Coalition members said they believe some of the pushback on Haslam’s legislation comes from a misconception that Tennesseans don’t support a purchase limit and prescription requirement.
“A Vanderbilt University study shows 70 percent of people in the state are OK with this being prescription only,” Raush said.
Meth production is so dangerous, Raush said, that he’d rather have to deal with imported meth than meth labs within his jurisdiction. He already has the resources to fight drug trafficking, he said, but the production of the drug brings bigger challenges.
Law enforcement agencies don’t have enough resources to continue fighting meth manufacturing and the ensuing cleanup, Raush added.
Haslam’s bill is just one of several on the General Assembly’s agenda this session. It comes two years after an electronic real-time purchase tracking system was implemented.
That system, called Nplex, was “allegedly going to have an impact. It has had no impact on the meth issue. So we’re back at the table again two years later,” Rausch said.
First District Attorney General Tony Clark said limiting pseudoephedrine purchases is “a no-brainer.”
“We’re not asking people to stop buying bread or milk,” Clark said. “It’s cold medicine.”
The legislation is still in committee, but lawmakers are expected to vote on it this session.