Columbus-area legislators and police officials — intent on cracking down on methamphetamine cooking labs — are halfway home in the Indiana General Assembly in a bid to reduce the amount of cold or allergy medicine Hoosiers can buy.
The idea is to make it harder for criminals who run meth labs to get the raw materials they need to make an illegal drug that police say is widely abused in Indiana.
“The concern is not about good, honest people who need sinus medicine for legitimate reasons. It’s the bad guys we are trying to get,” said state Sen. Johnny Nugent, R-Lawrenceburg, who represents a portion of Bartholomew County.
In a legislative session that has drawn interest mostly for issues related to the state budget and the ongoing debate about whether Indiana should willingly allow an expansion of Medicaid, the anti-meth bill has been among a number of less-contentious bills aimed at keeping drugs off the street.
State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, also has House Bill 1524, which would allow authorities to revoke a store’s retail license and impose criminal penalties, if a retailer knowingly sells synthetic drugs intended for human consumption that mimic marijuana, cocaine or other illegal substances.
The bill sailed unanimously through the House and awaits a hearing in the state Senate.
On the anti-meth legislation, which now awaits action in the state House of Representatives, Nugent was among a big majority of senators voting in favor of Senate Bill 496 this month to limit people to buying 61.2 grams of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine annually.
Those are substances commonly used in cold medicines such as Sudafed that help drain nasal passages, but they also are among raw materials that amateur chemists can cook into meth crystals to produce a raw and dangerous high for drug users.
When the bill makes it to a full hearing in the House in the next few weeks, Smith said he’ll likely vote for the legislation even though he has a few reservations about how the bill affects the average consumer.
Trimming legal purchases to 61.2 grams per year is about 29 percent less than allowed under current state law.
Consumers, especially those who have family members suffering with serious allergies, aren’t sold on the bill.
“I don’t think I should be limited on what I buy. I’m not doing anything wrong, and I don’t like the fact that Big Brother is watching,” said Sonia Straub, a Columbus mother of two children, one of whom has nagging allergy problems.
Straub said she doubts her family would surpass the lower limit that’s been proposed, but she pointed out that she buys cold and allergy medicines for an entire household and not just for her individual use. That can add up, she said.
Carol Rumple, a longtime Columbus resident, said she can see both sides of the issue and can understand why legislators and police want tougher laws to fight meth production.
“We do have too many people using these (substances) illegally,” Rumple said. “But if this was something I used all the time, I’d find it hard to understand why I was having to pay for the sins of someone else.”
Smith said he doesn’t want to make law-abiding citizens jump through unnecessary hoops to buy cold medications, but he thinks trimming the legal amount of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine that can be purchased without a doctor’s orders is something he’ll probably vote to approve.
“It’s terrible these components can be used to make illegal drugs,” Smith said.
Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said he thinks Senate Bill 496 could help reduce production of a horrible drug, while not interfering with the average, law-abiding consumer too much.
“I’m happy to see this,” he said. “It seems like a nice compromise rather than making people get a doctor’s prescription (and paying for an office visit) every time they needed cold medicine.”
Proponents of the 61.2-gram limit say that volume of medicine should be enough to keep most allergy sufferers and others stocked with sinus relief products for up to eight months — enough to last through cold, flu and allergy seasons.
Anyone who needs more cold or allergy medicine has the option to see a doctor and get a prescription, if they truly need it, proponents say.
Already in Indiana, anyone who buys a nonpresription drug containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine has to swipe a driver’s license or state identification card into an electronic tracking system in order to get the medicine. The system keeps track of who has purchased the restricted medications and the quantity.
The current limit in Indiana gets tracked on a monthly, not yearly, basis; it adds up to 86.4 grams a year.
Indiana is among 43 states that restrict the over-the-counter sale of such cold-relief drugs in some way as a method of fighting methamphetamine abuse.
State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said some legislators wanted to require a prescription each time a consumer bought cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, but he thought that would have cost law-abiding citizens with the sniffles too much money running to their doctor.
“If someone has seasonal sinus issues, these limits should still allow them to be good to go on supply,” said Walker, who joined Nugent and 42 other state senators in voting for the bill.
Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, one of three senators who represents Bartholomew County, also voted in favor the legislation and was thankful it doesn’t force consumers to secure a doctor’s prescription every time they need cold or allergy relief.
“This time, we heard medical testimony that 61.2 grams is enough to get anybody over a cold and through hay fever season,” Steele said.
Another part of the legislation that Steele favors allows convenience stores to sell basic cold and sinus medications, but they’ll have to hook into the state’s computerized tracking system in order to do it on equal footing with other retail outlets.
That state-sponsored data system has gotten even more high-tech in recent months.
Indiana has been tracking pseudoephedrine purchases for eight years, officials said, but last year the system was tweaked so that it now uses real-time computerized tracking (known as the National Precursor Log Exchange or NPLEx) to scan who buys the targeted sinus products and how much.
Nugent said SB 496 also increases criminal penalties for anyone who furnishes more than 10 grams of pseudoephedrine to another person who uses it in a meth lab.
The bill makes it a felony of varying degrees if a meth lab explosion or fire causes property damage or personal injury.
Plus, the legislation says anyone with a criminal offense related to methamphetamine on their record within the previous seven years can’t possess medication that contains pseudoephedrine or ephedrine at all without a doctor’s prescription.