Anti-meth bill advances in Senate

Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON — Sales of cold medicines used to make methamphetamine would be restricted under a bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday after lawmakers forged a compromise protecting state prerogatives.

The legislation would require stores to sell Sudafed, Nyquil and other medicines containing pseudoephedrine only from behind the pharmacy counter. In makeshift labs across the country, the ingredient has been extracted and used to cook meth.

Consumers would have to show a photo ID, sign a log, and be limited to 7.5 grams — or about 250 30-milligram pills — in a 30-day period. The amount is regarded by senators as enough for a family to treat sickness, but not enough to make cooking meth worthwhile.

“The number of homemade labs popping up has climbed all over the state,” said U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Law enforcement and border patrol have stepped up their efforts to dismantle such labs and prevent the distribution of this highly addictive drug, and this bill will help with those efforts.”

Computer tracking would prevent customers from exceeding the limit at other stores, according to the bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jim Talent, R-Mo.

Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., also co-sponsored for the bill.

“I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with local law enforcement officials throughout New Mexico to talk about the effects of methamphetamine in their communities and what can be done to clean it up,” Bingaman said. “The need for additional federal resources is always stressed and I believe this bill would go a long ways in helping to fight this problem.”

Authorities said Thursday that Walgreen Co. agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle claims it broke state and federal laws by failing to monitor sales of over-the-counter cold medicine that can be used to make methamphetamine. The company also agreed to spend $1 million to monitor purchases of the medicine. It did not admit to any wrongdoing.

The measure had been stalled in committee for several weeks over concerns that it could stop states from enacting their own rules on cold medicine sales. It was modeled after an Oklahoma law that took effect last year, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., complained it could interfere with his state’s rules.

The was approved by voice vote after lawmakers accepted an amendment that would allow states to adopt and enforce their own rules.

Another amendment, by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would delay the implementation date of the legislation until Jan. 1, 2007, for products containing pseudoephedrine in combination with other ingredients. For products in which pseudoephedrine is the only active ingredient, the restrictions would take effect 90 days after enactment.

“Today is a good day in the fight against methamphetamine. We’re one step closer to enacting a national meth bill that would put thousands of meth labs out of business,” Feinstein said.

But Coburn’s amendment could renew resistance from retailers who don’t want to deal with a patchwork of state regulations on cold medicine sales.

“We made the strong argument that if you wanted retailers to enforce this law across the country with vigor and with correctness, you needed to have a national standard so we didn’t have to train all of our employees differently,” said John Motley, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents grocery stores and other retailers.

After initial opposition to the bill, retailers had been won over with a series of compromises, including an exception for stores without a pharmacist on duty, such as convenience stores and some grocery chains. That exception allowed states to work with the Drug Enforcement Administration to license certain employees who are not pharmacists to sell the medicines.

Coburn said he thought most retailers would eventually come on board.

“A little bit of discomfort for the retailers isn’t going to hurt them, because the goal ultimately is to help people,” he said.