Law officers from around Missouri encouraged legislators Wednesday to require a doctor's prescription to buy certain cold medicines, arguing it was the only truly effective way to stop people from making methamphetamine.
Missouri has passed a series of increasingly stringent laws over the past decade to try to control the sale of pseudoephedrine medicines, which can be used as a key ingredient in meth. The state already has moved the medicines behind the pharmacy counter, limited the quantities people can buy and required photo identification. In recent months, the state implemented an electronic database to track pseudoephedrine purchases with the hope of blocking sales to people stockpiling the drugs.
But Missouri is still among the nation's leaders in annual meth lab busts.
"We've been fighting this war for 10 years. We're losing - it's as simple as that," said St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer, among several people who testified before the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
"We need help. I not only beg you, I pray that you support this bill," Neer said.
Several committee members indicated they would, although the bill didn't come to a vote. Others on the panel sided with medicine makers and a representative for an asthma and allergy foundation, who warned that a prescription requirement could impose an unnecessary burden on people with stuffy noses and urged lawmakers to allow more time to see how the electronic tracking system works.
"We don't see any correlation between what we sell and meth lab incidents in a state," said Mandy Hagan, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the manufacturers of nonprescription medicines.
While law officers cited statistics showing a sharp decline in meth lab busts in Oregon and Mississippi since those states required a prescription for pseudoephedrine, Hagan countered with other statistics showing that some of the nation's top pseudoephedrine markets - namely, Texas and Florida - have far fewer meth lab incidents than states such as Missouri and Tennessee.
Missouri had 1,960 meth lab busts and seizures in 2010, and Tennessee had 2,082, making it the first state to top Missouri since 2003.
Law officers testified that electronic systems to track pseudoephedrine sales have failed to curb the meth problem elsewhere and instead have led to a lucrative black market in which people buy the cold pills and re-sell them to meth makers - a process called "smurfing."
Missouri is seen as a key state in the push to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine because of its historical distinction as a national leader in meth lab incidents. Although it has failed in past years, this year's legislation has the support of both Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster.
"Missouri is the battle line. If Missouri goes, so goes the nation," said Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan. "When Missouri passes this law - and I pray you do - you will see our meth labs drop dramatically within one year."
Several Missouri communities already have enacted local prescription requirements for pseudoephedrine. The eastern Missouri town of Washington became the first city in the U.S. to do so in June 2009. Joplin was the latest city to do so, approving a prescription ordinance Monday that will take effect on May 1.
The head of the Missouri Pharmacy Association testified against the prescription legislation, urging lawmakers to wait a year so they could evaluate whether the new industry-funded database is able to cut into the state's meth problem.
But pharmacist John Hewkin, of Sullivan, was among those supporting the bill. When Sullivan recently enacted a local prescription requirement for pseudoephedrine, Hewkin said he voluntarily implemented the policy in another pharmacy he runs in Cuba, Mo.