Oklahoma's 27 district attorneys asked lawmakers Monday for the “political courage” to stand up against pharmaceutical companies and require prescriptions for the decongestant drugs that are used by cold sufferers but also can be cooked in labs to make methamphetamine.
“These labs are causing fires, chaos and devastation in our great state, and it's killing innocent people,” said District Attorney Greg Mashburn, of Cleveland, McClain and Garvin counties. “We desperately need to make the key ingredient in this dangerous drug a prescription.”
Several bills proposed in the state Legislature this session deal with limiting and tracking medications with pseudoephedrine, including decongestant drugs such as Claritin-D, Mucinex and Sudafed. Last week, one of those bills — Senate Bill 1276 — was defeated in a tie vote in committee, prompting the state's top prosecutors to gather together in support of the measures.
Drugs containing pseudoephedrine are cooked in labs across the nation to create methamphetamine. Oregon and Mississippi have passed laws requiring a doctor's prescription for medications containing pseudoephedrine.
“There is no methamphetamine made in Oklahoma without pseudoephedrine — period,” said Eddie Wyant, district attorney for Delaware and Ottawa counties.
Over the years, lawmakers have whittled away at the availability of pseudoephedrine, removing it from grocery stores and gas stations, tracking sales and putting it behind the pharmaceutical counter.
Meth lab cooks have found ways around those laws, most recently through smurfing — paying groups of people to buy drugs with pseudoephedrine in small amounts at numerous stores to get around tracking.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association, the Oklahoma Osteopathic Association and the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians all are opposed to requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. In part because they say it will increase the number of doctor visits and keep a safe medicine out of some people's hands.
Last year, there were about 900 meth labs uncovered in Oklahoma, and the vast majority of those were in northeast Oklahoma — more than 400 in Tulsa County alone.
Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, said the geographic concentration of meth labs in her region is partly why her bill requiring a prescription for the tablet forms of pseudoephedrine was defeated in committee.
“We're so passionate about it in eastern Oklahoma because we feel like we're just bleeding out of our pores,” David said.
“They don't feel that same sense of urgency here in Oklahoma City. The senators who voted against it were Oklahoma City senators.”
Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, has a bill similar to David's that is scheduled to be heard in a House committee meeting Tuesday. David said although her bill is stalled for the time being, House Bill 2375 still can work its way through the legislative process.
But David said they face an extremely powerful pharmaceutical lobby.
“I don't know what to say. They've got more money than I could ever hope to have, to lobby against this,” David said. “They're running TV ads and radio ads. I have been working this issue all year, and they've also been working against me all year.”
In Oklahoma and several other states considering limits on pseudoephedrine, the pharmaceutical lobby group the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has launched the Stop Meth Not Meds campaign.
The organization also paid for a study conducted in Oklahoma by Economic Impact Group that showed the cost of the bill would be about $56 million to the state economy.
“You're seeing a full-court press from the pharmaceutical companies, and I believe nationwide there is millions of dollars on the table and they are more concerned with profit than they are about people's lives,” said Tim Harris, Tulsa County district attorney.
“They have all the money. We don't have any money for a PR campaign.”
In 2010 and 2011, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and several drug companies spent about $1,100 on meals for lawmakers, according to reports from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
The district attorneys on Monday launched their own lobby effort for the bill going door to door at the Capitol to try and convince lawmakers of the necessity of these bills.
Gel caps vs. tablets
Gel and liquid capsules that contain pseudoephedrine cannot easily be cooked into methamphetamine. Mashburn said only the hard tablets need to be made prescription- only.
“Citizens we are asking you that when you have a cold or a runny nose that you be willing to take this pill instead of this pill,” Mashburn said, holding up a gel capsule and then a hard tablet.
And if you prefer the hard tablet, he asked that you be willing to call a doctor and get a prescription.
Both bills authored by Tibbs and David would only require prescriptions for the tablet form of the drugs.
The gel and liquid capsules still would be available over the counter.