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Lawmakers zeroing in on anti-meth plan

February 14, 2016

Pharmacists say there are tell-tale signs that a customer is buying cold medicine to make methamphetamine: They peer behind the pharmacy counter, ask for the highest dosage and make multiple purchases in the same hour.

But despite pharmacists' confidence in identifying such people, some drug store chains fear that proposed legal changes in Indiana—which would leave it to pharmacists to decide whether to require some buyers to get a prescription for the medicines—could lead to confrontations and put them in danger.

"We definitely don't want for our pharmacists to be in the position of law enforcement," said Heather Willey, a lobbyist for CVS Pharmacy.

The bills, which have been passed by the chambers where they originated, are meant to help address the methamphetamine problem in Indiana, which led the nation in meth lab busts for a third straight year in 2015.

A House bill by Rep. Ben Smaltz, an Auburn Republican, would allow pharmacists to require a prescription from suspicious customers if they refuse versions of cold medicines that are tamper resistant or that contain lower doses of pseudoephedrine, an essential component in the making of meth. Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath both backed the measure.

A Senate proposal by Randy Head, a Logansport Republican, would require pharmacists to screen customers and allow them to deny sales outright.

Pharmacists would have to make sure their professional decisions adhere to guidelines set by the Indiana Board of Pharmacy in order to get legal immunity. If they are not followed, the board can discipline the pharmacist.

Opponents say there's still too much room for subjectivity.

"You're really going to be putting people in a position and where they're going to look at someone and they're going to say 'I don't know, that person doesn't look right to me,'" Willey said. "And that person may have a very legitimate need."

But Harry Webb, who owns two pharmacies in northern Indiana, said the liability issue has been inflated. He helped create an ordinance in Fulton County that both bills drew inspiration from.

"The meth cooks, the dangerous individuals, aren't the ones coming in," he said. "So it's never been an issue."

Since federal law limits the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy, meth cooks hire groups of people, called smurfers, to canvass pharmacies to buy the medicine.

Webb said his stores also have prominent signs posted that inform customers of their policy, which he says deters smurfers before they get to the counter.

Supporters, including pharmacists and independent pharmacies, also maintain that they already consult with customers, so the bills wouldn't cause big changes.

"I've dealt with these folks and I know exactly what they're looking for," said Rep. Steve Davisson, a Salem Republican and licensed pharmacist.

Both bills emerged as lawmakers shied away from a more stringent step of requiring a prescription for all pseudoephedrine purchases. Pharmacist groups and law enforcement organizations both backed the measures as a compromise after the repeated failure of bills that would have been tougher.

"We're trying to restrict here on the front end a raw material people have to have to manufacture methamphetamine," Head said.

But the proposals still face heavy lobbying from retailers and pharmaceutical giants who say such screening and prescription requirements would inconvenience their customers.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a lobbying group for pseudoephedrine manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, opposes the bills and has lobbied for years in other states and against the federal government to keep access restrictions off the table.

"At the end of the day, it's the law-abiding citizen that gets penalized," said Carlos Gutierrez, director of government affairs for CHPA.

Although law enforcement and medical groups have fought the CHPA over prescriptions, they jumped on board with this year's pharmacy bills.

"Everybody wants this to be a freedom of choice, but we have a problem," Webb said "We've all got to do a little bit to address this problem."

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