Clean up this meth!

Feb 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

Our wayward war on drugs finally taught us that education, regulation and rehab save lives and money. To the extent we inform, control and treat, we don’t have to warehouse addicts, turning taxpayers into tax burdens. Even Yosemite Sam and Rick Perry get it.

Never was the war a more apt metaphor than when meth labs, like improvised explosive devices, started combusting across Kentucky. Years later, state lawmakers are still dithering over how to disarm them.

A 2011 measure, which aimed to make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only, died for inaction on the Senate floor. This session, Sen. Tom Jensen, R-21, a London attorney, resurrected it with an exemption for liquids and gel caps, from which it’s far more difficult to extract meth’s key ingredient. His Senate Bill 50 and a twin (House Bill 79) are a reasonable compromise that would sustain cold and allergy patients’ access to versions of pseudoephedrine over the counter.

But the same industry that lavishly lobbied last year’s bill into oblivion once again spearheads the opposition. Its pervasive ad campaign, “Stop Meth Not Meds,” conveniently ignores the exemption. And yet, “I think it’s raising awareness to the consumer,” industry spokesman Carlos Gutierrez told the Senate Judiciary Committee in marathon hearings last month. “Once they’re educated and understand what’s at stake, it alarms them — and that’s really the intention of the advertising.”

Rep. Johnny Bell, D-23, a Glasgow defense attorney, sounded a separate alarm to the House Judiciary Committee: “When you look into the eyes of some of the children,” he said, “when you look at some of the individuals you’ve known since you were a child — that are completely destroyed and in prison now for 85, 90 years in the federal system with no hope of ever seeing the light of day … I think this is the most important issue we have here this session.”

According to witnesses, Kentucky meth labs are proliferating despite limits on — and electronic tracking of — pseudoephedrine sales. By contrast, since prescription laws took effect in Oregon and Mississippi, meth lab busts declined 96 and 67.5 percent, respectively.

The most compelling testimony for the prescription mandate came from narcotics enforcement czars in two other states. “I think this is a battle between pharmaceutical profits and public safety,” said Oklahoma’s R. Darrell Weaver. “And public safety has to be more important … to stop something that has destroyed so many lives in America.”

Mississippi’s Marshall Fisher noted that most meth cookers use 2-liter-bottle “shake and bake” labs yielding relatively small amounts. “So those people, who are normally good people, who got off on the wrong track, they wound up in prison,” he said. “Prison is not for addicts.”

He called Mississippi’s prescription mandate “a silver bullet,” adding, “We cannot arrest ourselves out of this situation; there is no way.” But the industry supports House Bill 80, which would block the sale of pseudoephedrine to meth offenders. Unlike SB 50, it would not require a prescription.

The bills are seen as competing. In a perfect world, both would be enacted — and supplemented by graphic public education on meth’s ill effects: exploding labs, burned flesh, toxic waste, rotten teeth, prostitution, disease, disability and death.

Further restricting non-liquid pseudoephedrine is a bipartisan, minimally intrusive, common sense solution. Some law-abiding citizens who prefer tablet forms of pseudoephedrine will resent the expense and inconvenience of getting a refillable prescription. They need to reconsider the collective costs of their unwillingness to share in a sacrifice for the common good.

It’s an extraordinary, forbidding fight. But Sen. Jensen, who is among the most respected lawmakers and savvy strategists in Frankfort, won the latest round. In a floor speech on Jan. 27, he withdrew as chief sponsor of SB 50 because, he said, members of the media were questioning his past legal representation of Operation UNITE, an anti-drug task force that supports his bill. Predictably, his retreat amid the non-conflict-of-interest triggered a bipartisan gang-bang — testimonials scolding the media, defending Jensen’s integrity and affirming the urgency of his measure.

When the smoke cleared, Jensen told reporters the issue shall come to a floor vote this time. For the sake of passage, let it be — intended or not — a referendum on his honor.