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House meth bill includes dramatic restrictions on cold medicine sales
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Rep. Jeff Johnson sponsored the meth bill. "This is by far the strongest, most comprehensive meth bill that any legislative body has passed in the United States," says Johnson. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Many common cold and allergy medications could soon be off-limits to most Minnesotans, in an effort to curb the production of the narcotic methamphetamine. In a dramatic turn in the debate over meth, the Minnesota House voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to ban over-the-counter sales of tablets containing pseudoephedrine, the primary ingredient in meth. The ban would include such popular medications as Sudafed and Claritin-D.

St. Paul, Minn. — It started as an attempt to place certain cold remedies behind pharmacy counters, thus making it more difficult for meth manufacturers to obtain the pseudoephedrine crucial to making their drugs. It ended with a sweeping ban on many everyday medications.

The bill passed on a 127-4 vote. Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, is the chief House sponsor of the meth bill. Johnson says he was surprised by how the bill evolved over two hours of debate.

"No question, this is by far the strongest, most comprehensive meth bill that any legislative body has passed in the United States," says Johnson.

The ban would take effect in August, 2006, and apply to over-the-counter sales of tablets containing pseudoephedrine. Rep. Mike Charron, R-Woodbury, proposed the tougher approach. Charron says given the devastating nature of methamphetamine addiction and the toxic byproducts of manufacturing the drug, it simply makes sense to block its key ingredient from entering the state.

I just don't see the need for it. Why inconvenience the public more than you have to in order to get control of this?
- Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis

The ban is not absolute, Charron says, because tablets would still be available by prescription. And he says certain forms of pseudoephedrine are exempt, because they're difficult to cook down into meth.

"People will still be able to get their liquid form for their kids. They'll still be able to get the gel cap form, you know, for people who take it that way. So we're not taking it totally off the market," says Charron. "But the pill form, that can be so readily cooked down and made into methamphetamine, we want to make that as inaccessible as possible."

But gel caps and liquid formulations would not be without restrictions. Another amendment to the bill would allow the state Board of Pharmacy to place both behind pharmacy desks if it turns out that, in the absence of tablets, the liquid forms become an alternative source of pseudoephedrine for meth manufacturers.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, offered that provision.

"When we take caplets away from meth makers and allow them to have liquid or gel caps, it's like taking guns away from a serial killer and letting them have their knives," says Atkins.

The bill also makes meth cooks liable for environmental cleanup if their labs contaminate neighboring properties with toxic chemicals, and toughens penalties for certain meth-related crimes.

House members beat back an attempt to remove the enhanced penalties. Supporters of current law, including Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, say that instead of longer sentences, more attention should have been directed to prevention and awareness programs.

"No one starts out in life saying, 'I want to be a meth addict.' There are reasons for it," says Mariani. "And the sooner we get to those reasons, the more effective we're going to be. So that's really what my vote was about."

Mariani was one of four DFLers to oppose the bill.

The House measure drew an immediate condemnation from retail, grocery, and pharmacy groups who say an outright ban on popular cold medicines goes much too far. A spokesman for the groups called the approach "unprecedented."

The House bill must still be reconciled with a version passed earlier this year by the Senate. The Senate legislation doesn't include the ban on cold tablets, but it does restrict them to pharmacy counters, limit the number that can be purchased at one time, and require purchasers to show an I.D. and sign a log book indicating their purchases.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, is the chief sponsor of the Senate plan. She says her approach should cut off a crucial source of pseudoephedrine without resorting to a ban on tablets.

"I just don't see the need for it," says Berglin. "Why inconvenience the public more than you have to in order to get control of this?"

Other critics of the ban say it could invite legal challenges from pharmaceutical companies -- leaving the state without any pseudoephedrine restrictions at all while lawsuits play out.

To avoid that possibility, the House takes a two-tiered approach. As a foundation, it adopts restrictions similar to those in the Senate position, delaying the ban until 2006. That's meant to give courts enough time to resolve potential litigation.

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