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Meth lab bill dies in Legislature

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation designed to eradicate methamphetamine labs in West Virginia died Saturday night, after the House of Delegates watered down the bill and refused to make any concessions.

"West Virginia's meth mess has been made worse," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said. "It's sad to see such a serious matter ignored. It's a grave injustice."

The House wanted legislation that would give voters the final say on whether their counties could adopt local ordinances requiring people to get a prescription before they could buy cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.

Senate members wanted stricter limitations on the amount of the cold medicine people could buy. They also supported adopting a statewide prescription requirement for the cold pill, if the drug industry decided to stop funding an electronic system that tracked sales of the cold medicine.

Earlier Saturday night, both houses seemed to have worked out a compromise.

A conference committee of senators and delegates met in the back of the House chamber. The meeting turned into a scrum of sorts as the media and a gaggle of lobbyists, elbow to elbow, tried to hear the debate. In the end, House staff made a mad dash to the clerk's office, but apparently didn't file the committee's report by a 9 p.m. deadline, nullifying the proposed deal. 

Still, there was no assurance the full Senate would have passed the compromise plan. 

The legislation became jeopardized Saturday, after the House passed an unexpected change to the bill on the final day of the legislative session.

The House amendment would have required voters to approve county ordinances that would mandate people get a prescription before they could buy cold medications containing pseudoephedrine.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, pushed for the change. Sobonya's daughter, Abby, lobbies for a trade group that represents over-the-counter drug companies that manufacture pseudoephedrine products.

"This reformed amendment is empowering the people," Kelli Sobonya said on the House floor Saturday afternoon.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill (SB6) to reduce meth labs by making pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

However, the House of Delegates gutted the bill earlier this week, passing an amendment that would lower pseudoephedrine purchases from 48 grams to 24 grams per year -- a proposal first recommended by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The change likely would have done little to reduce overall pseudoephedrine sales statewide. Only about 4 percent of West Virginians who bought the cold medication last year purchased more than 24 grams, or about 10 boxes, according to the state Board of Pharmacy.

House members opposed a statewide prescription requirement, saying the measure would drive up health-care costs and inconvenience cold and allergy sufferers.

However, the House modified the bill Friday night, allowing individual county commissions to pass ordinances that require a prescription for pseudoephedrine products, such as Sudafed and Claritin D, without a public vote. 

Following complaints by drug industry lobbyists, House members changed the bill again Saturday -- this time adding the provision that voters must approve any measure that would make pseudoephedrine prescription-only. House members approved the amendment on a 63-34 vote Saturday.

The House version of the Senate bill also would have prohibited people convicted of any drug crime from purchasing pseudoephedrine without a prescription.

West Virginia authorities seized 533 meth labs last year, a record number. Police found the clandestine labs in 45 of the state's 55 counties.

Pharmacies keep pseudoephedrine products behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID and sign a form to purchase the medication.

Also Saturday, the House passed a Senate bill (SB204) that would stop meth lab cleanup costs from draining the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

Under the bill, property owners would no longer be reimbursed for meth cleaning expenses through the fund, which is intended to pay medical and funeral expenses for victims of violent crimes.

The crime victims fund is on pace to pay out more than $1.2 million for meth lab claims during the current fiscal year, which ends in July.

The legislation next goes to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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