Pubdate: Sun, 22 May 2005
Source: Messenger-Inquirer (KY)
Copyright: 2005 Messenger-Inquirer
Author: Deirdre Shesgreen
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Senators Expected To Release New Bill

WASHINGTON -- On a bitterly cold February morning, a half dozen lobbyists 
filed into U.S. Sen. Jim Talent's conference room for a tense, 90-minute 
meeting with one of the Missouri lawmaker's top aides.

The lobbyists represented an array of powerful business interests, from 
deep-pocketed drug companies to retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target 
to the nation's convenience store industry. They were there to talk about a 
bill Talent, a Missouri Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California 
Democrat, had introduced three weeks earlier proposing sharp new curbs on 
the sale of popular cold medicines containing a key ingredient used to make 

The lobbyists planned a full-court press to undo the bill's core proposal: 
putting cold medicines such as Sudafed and Benadryl behind the pharmacy 
counter, where consumers would have to sign a log and show an ID before 
buying them.

A key test of the industry's lobbying strength will come this week, when 
Talent and Feinstein plan to unveil a new version of their bill. Majority 
Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is working with Talent and industry groups to revise 
a similar measure he has in the House.

The legislation would make it harder to buy products containing 
pseudoephedrine, which can do wonders for a stuffy nose but which is also a 
key ingredient in the deadly and highly addictive narcotic known as meth.

For more than a decade, the makers of cold and flu remedies, and their 
allies in the retail industry, have had stunning success in staving off or 
watering down proposals to tightly regulate pseudoephedrine. And meth 
makers have exploited the resulting loopholes.

Despite the lobbying firepower on display at that February meeting, this 
year might be different. Even as Talent and other lawmakers are working 
closely with the industry to address some of its concerns, the once-fierce 
opposition to strict limits on the drug seems to be unraveling.

Some groups have softened their opposition, while others have stepped back 
from the legislative fray or are even supporting new limits.

"They saw what the lay of the land was, and not just in our offices but in 
state legislatures around the country and with the public," Talent said. 
"There are parts of the industry that have said, 'This is overdue.' "

Thirteen states, including Missouri, have passed laws restricting sale of 
pseudoephedrine products. Thirty others are considering such a move.

In Washington, meanwhile, Talent, Feinstein, Blunt and their aides have 
continued to meet with industry lobbyists -- in sometimes-friendly, 
sometimes-adversarial negotiations over a new proposal. The February 
meeting was the first in a series of negotiating sessions.

So far, the lawmakers have flatly rejected some of the industry lobbyists' 
pleas, including a pitch to strip out the main element reclassifying 
pseudoephedrine as a Schedule 5 drug, which would trigger the 
behind-the-counter requirement. But they are actively considering others, 
including one that would leave many cold medicines with pseudoephedrine on 
retail store shelves until 2007.

The lawmakers are also running industry requests past sheriffs, police and 
the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Talent said he and the other backers of the bill are trying to strike a 
careful balance.

They have told the drug and retail lobbyists putting pseudoephedrine 
products behind the pharmacy counter "would trump anything else." At the 
same time, he said, "we want consumers to have access (to cold medicine) 
and we don't want to drive the costs up for consumers."

Driving the legislative give-and-take is simple political math, the 
delicate task of crafting a measure that won't draw the opposition of the 
drug industry's many friends on Capitol Hill.

"The drug industry behind the scenes here has I think unfortunate but very 
large clout," Feinstein said, adding that drug company lobbyists have 
helped kill more modest pseudoephedrine proposals she has offered in the 
past three sessions of Congress.

Feinstein's home state of California, like Missouri, has been plagued by 
the meth problem, and she's been at the forefront of the battle over 
pseudoephedrine for nearly a decade.

The fight stretches back even further, to 1986, when the Reagan 
administration called for legislation that would have required companies to 
keep records of purchases and sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, along 
with about dozen other drugs.

Instead, Congress passed a measure calling for study of the issue.

It would be another eight years before such drug manufacturers would have 
to report such transactions. Even then, lawmakers left pseudoephedrine 
untouched, and meth makers simply began using it instead of ephedrine.

In 1996, Feinstein came back to win a limit of 9 grams, or about 360 pills, 
on the amount of the drug consumers could buy at any one time. But 
lawmakers exempted the foil-and-plastic blister packs of Sudafed and other 

The meth makers adjusted, clearing grocery store shelves of the blister packs.

Two years ago, Feinstein tried to close the blister-pack loophole. The 
industry said it needed a provision stating that federal limits would 
override any stiffer state laws such as Missouri's.

But just as Feinstein and industry groups were putting the final touches on 
a deal, it fell apart. The reason is a matter of dispute. Feinstein blames 
the drug industry. The drug industry blames law enforcement. Either way, 
Feinstein's proposal never made it to the Senate floor.

This year, the legislative story may have a different ending. At the urging 
of law enforcement, Talent and Feinstein decided to push for more sweeping 
controls. And while the drug and retail industries came out swinging at 
first, the opposition has been quietly dissipating, they say.

For example:

n The National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which expressed deep 
concerns about the bill earlier this year, came out this month in favor of 
putting some of the cold medicines behind the pharmacy counter.

n Several major retailers -- including Target and Wal-Mart -- have agreed 
in recent weeks to voluntarily take certain cold medicines off their 
shelves and put them behind pharmacy counters.

n Pfizer Inc., the maker of Sudafed and a leading opponent in previous 
legislative battles over pseudoephedrine, now supports tighter controls. 
The reason: the company has produced a substitute cold remedy that doesn't 
contain the offending drug.

"It's a completely different environment today," said Mary Ann Wagner, a 
lobbyist with the chain drug store association. "The issue has never been 
quite as high profile and polarizing."

The turning point, both sides agree, was Oklahoma's move last year to put 
pseudoephedrine products behind the pharmacy counter -- a law on which 
Talent's federal bill is modeled.

"The influence Oklahoma has had on other states has been unbelievable," 
Wagner said. And "the activity in the states has created a different 
environment for getting a federal law passed."

Feinstein said the new state mandates and voluntary retail restrictions 
have dramatically altered the climate in Washington. "Those are two stark 
things that have happened that have changed the playing field," she said.

Plus, there are the horror stories: three Oklahoma troopers fatally shot by 
meth cooks, a Kansas sheriff killed during a meth raid, a 10-year-old 
Indianapolis girl killed so she couldn't tell authorities about a meth lab.

The publicity generated by such events makes it a public relations 
nightmare to lobby against anti-meth legislation.

That's not to say the affected industry groups are sitting on the sidelines.

The multibillion-dollar drug industry, after all, has a lot at stake, as do 
the wholesalers, retailers, and convenience stores . Hence the February 
meetings and those that have followed.

"Since the day they introduced it, we've been talking," said Motley, of the 
Food Marketing Institute.

Motley, like every other lobbyist interviewed for this story, stressed that 
his group supports efforts to crack down on meth -- just not this 
particular effort.

"The disagreement is on how you best go about trying to deal with the 
problem, while you still allow hard-working, law-abiding consumers to get 
the products they need," Motley said.

Among other things, the grocery stores, many of which don't have 
pharmacies, are pushing for putting the medicines behind a "restricted 
counter" instead of a pharmacy. So Sudafed and similar products would be 
sold like cigarettes are now, by a clerk -- not a pharmacist -- who would 
check ID and record the sales in a log.

Motley said he's also hoping to win exemptions for children's medications, 
which have lower dosages of pseudoephedrine.

The National Association of Convenience Stores is pushing for an exemption 
that would allow gas stations and similar outlets to sell 24-hour or 
48-hour doses of cold pills. And other retail and drug companies are hoping 
to delay the implementation of the bill for multi-ingredient products that 
contain pseudoephedrine along with other medicines.

"We're anxiously awaiting a new draft" of the bill, Motley said.

Motley said the lobbying powerhouse in the meth fight has been police and 
sheriffs across the country -- a political force no lawmaker wants to cross.

Drug Enforcement Agency officials declined to comment for this story. But 
Capt. Ron Replogle, head of the Missouri Highway Patrol's Division of Drug 
and Crime Control, said anything short of uniform standards putting 
pseudoephedrine behind a pharmacy counter will not address the problem.

He noted that after Oklahoma passed its law, that state's residents have 
crossed the border to buy cold medications in Missouri, whose restrictions 
haven't gone into effect yet. Even Talent's bill, he said, "will not end 
the meth problem. You're still going to have people addicted to the drug 
and they're going to get it some way."

But, he said, "it would make a great difference."

Talent said he has been receptive to concerns raised by Motley and others. 
He's considering a children's medicine exemption and hasn't ruled out the 
idea of a "restricted counter" for the medicines. He's also considering 
delaying implementation of the bill until January 2007 for 
"multi-ingredient" medicines with pseudoephedrine.

A delay would give drug companies time to reformulate their medicines and 
avoid the new restrictions all together. Feinstein said she had "deep 
concerns" about any delays; Talent said that if law enforcement convinces 
him the change would undermine the heart of the legislation, he won't agree 
to it.

But Talent said he's considering the delay for practical reasons: the bill 
could otherwise encounter stiff resistance from senators in states that 
haven't been hit by meth but whose constituents wouldn't be able to buy the 
medicine off the shelf.

And, he argued, "If we do a postponement ... it would be a clear signal to 
the drug companies that they need to get medications on the market that 
don't have pseudoephedrine."

The real fight will begin once the legislation gets out of committee.

"If we can get a bill law enforcement likes ... and pare away the 
opposition as much as possible," Talent said, "we may be able to move it 
very quickly."

Feinstein, a veteran of previous meth battles, took a more cautious view. 
"The biggest hurdle," she said, "is the pharmaceutical industry. They want 
to sell as much of it -- whenever, wherever -- as they can."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth