CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Revised legislation aimed at curbing illegal methamphetamine production in West Virginia would restrict only a small percentage of sales of a cold medication used to make meth in clandestine labs, according to data released by the state Board of Pharmacy.
Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee gutted a Senate bill (SB6) that sought to reduce meth labs by requiring a doctor's prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.
The House committee amended the bill and passed legislation -- recommended by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- that would limit West Virginia consumers to 24 grams of the cold medicine a year. Right now, consumers can buy 48 grams, or about 20 boxes, annually.
Last year, only 4 percent of people who purchased pseudoephedrine in West Virginia bought more than 24 grams, according to sales data.
"In essence, the [drug] industry is giving up 4 percent of their sales last year under this amendment," said David Potters, executive director of the state pharmacy board.
The lower limit matches Kentucky's new threshold.
Last year, about 7,000 West Virginians purchased more than 24 grams of pseudoephedrine -- sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin D.
Dan Foster, a Charleston doctor who headed a Kanawha County Commission substance-abuse task force, said meth cooks hire other people -- called "smurfers" -- to circumvent pseudoephedrine purchase limits.
"The new suggested annual limit will have minimal impact on illegal meth purchases, as nearly 96 percent of pseudoephedrine buyers in West Virginia bought less than 24 grams," Foster said. "So most of the 'smurfers' already stay below this limit."
Authorities busted 533 meth labs in West Virginia last year -- almost twice as many as in 2012.
West Virginia health advocates on Wednesday slammed House members for stripping the pseudoephedrine prescription requirement from the Senate's bill.
"We are disgusted by the actions of the House Judiciary Committee," said Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "We can only hope that the rest of the House will listen to their constituents, instead of drug lobbyists, and restore this bill on the House floor."
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents over-the-counter drug manufacturers, has hired a stable of lobbyists tasked with persuading House members to oppose the Senate's prescription bill.
The trade group also paid for a media blitz that includes newspaper, radio and Internet ads.
The drug industry lobbyists say the Senate bill would drive up health-care costs and inconvenience consumers. Lobbyists also say an overwhelming majority of West Virginians oppose making pseudoephedrine products prescription-only.
However, supporters of the prescription bill released a poll Wednesday that shows 53.5 percent of voters support legislation that would require a prescription for meth-making cold medicines, to reduce meth labs. About 25 percent of the 900 voters who responded said they would oppose the prescription requirement. About 20 percent were undecided.
"This survey is a way to capture the opinions of West Virginians about this issue, to allow their voices to be heard over the rhetoric of the industry," said Judy Crabtree, director of the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement.
A group called the West Virginia Intervention on Meth Lab Committee paid for the poll.
Crabtree and Smith noted that drug industry ads opposing the Senate bill don't mention that the legislation exempts "tamper-resistant" pseudoephedrine medications, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which can't easily be converted into meth.
"The voters aren't convinced by scare tactics," Smith said. "They know we need to do everything in our power to fight our drug epidemic, and they know that the bill will still allow them to get other forms of Sudafed over the counter."
Oregon and Mississippi adopted laws requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. Sharp declines in meth labs followed.
The amended bill will be up for discussion on the House floor today.
Also Wednesday, the House Judiciary and Finance committees advanced a Senate bill that would stop meth lab cleanup claims from draining the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
The Legislature established the fund to help pay medical and funeral expenses for victims of violent crime. However, 20 percent of the fund's payouts now go to landlords -- to reimburse them for meth lab cleanup costs. That bill moves to the House floor today.
The legislative session ends Saturday night.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.