CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation designed to put methamphetamine cooks out of business in West Virginia cleared its first hurdle Tuesday.
The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee passed a bill (SB6) that would require West Virginians to get a prescription before they can purchase a cold medication used to make meth in clandestine labs across the state.
"My area of the state is probably impacted more than any by this plague," said Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas. Tuesday's vote "sends a message to other legislators that this is an important step to curb the meth lab problem. It's going to be a long battle."
The legislation requires a prescription for medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. The nasal decongestant is sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D.
The bill exempts so-called "tamper resistant" pseudoephedrine products such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which can't easily be converted into illegal meth.
"I think we can cut down on meth labs and still have access to the medicine when law-abiding citizens need it," said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, who heads the Senate health committee.
Sen. Chris Walters, R-Kanawha, who voted against the legislation, said he supports an alternative bill that lowers the amount of pseudoephedrine people could buy each year -- from about 20 boxes to 10 boxes. The bill also would establish a meth-offender registry that would bar criminals convicted of drug crimes from purchasing pseudoephedrine.
West Virginia law enforcement authorities seized 533 meth labs last year, a record number. In Kanawha County alone, police busted 159 meth labs.
"The meth problem is just astronomical in cost," said Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan. "We have to do something."
Bridget Lambert, a lobbyist for West Virginia retailers, urged lawmakers to vote against the prescription-only requirement and instead support a meth-offender registry. Walmart, Rite Aid and other pharmacies across the state sold more than 440,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine last year.
"We feel the best way to address this is to address the meth criminal, not the law-abiding citizen," she said.
Lambert told lawmakers that police would no longer have access to a pseudoephedrine tracking system called NPLEx if state law required a prescription for the cold medication. Law enforcement authorities use NPLEx in meth lab investigations to confirm pseudoephedrine purchases.