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Federal Meth Act Would Overrule State Law

Des Moines Register, June 8, 2005

By Lee Rood, Register Staff Writer

Momentum is building in Congress to pass a nationwide law restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, the popular decongestant used to make the highly addictive drug methamphetamine.

However, state leaders are upset that recent changes to the Combat Meth Act would allow the federal government to supersede tougher legislation enacted this year in Iowa to better control sales of meth's main ingredient. Narcotics officials in Iowa and elsewhere say they fear drug companies - which spend more money to lobby Congress than any other industry - are persuading key sponsors to water down the federal act, usurping strides made by states in recent months to curb meth production.

Much of the concern nationally has centered on Iowa, where lawmakers this spring passed the toughest law in the country on restricting pseudoephedrine sales. State legislators, faced with a second-in-the-nation meth-lab problem, decided to require pseudoephedrine products to be sold in pharmacies, except for the lowest-dose liquids.

A new draft of the federal measure would allow retail outlets to continue selling liquid- and starch-based pediatric medicines that can be used to make meth - and require all states to follow suit.

Iowa donations

A review of opensecrets.org , a Web site associated with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that tracks political contributions, shows candidates for Congress from Iowa in 2004 received at least $333,171 from sources noted as "pharmaceuticals/health products." The top recipient was Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican who received $260,421 from such sources, the Web site reports.

"Our legislation ought to be the national model," Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said Tuesday, upon hearing of the changes. "Anything less than what Iowa is doing can minimize the security that can come from this bill."

As originally drafted, the Combat Meth Act, which was co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin of Iowa, would not have superseded state laws that were more restrictive than the federal measure.

However, the proposal has since been modified by its original authors, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri, Iowa officials said.

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Feinstein, said his office had been "working with the industry and Republicans to try to get a bill that everyone can support. . . . The pharmaceutical industry would fight strongly anything that wasn't a national standard."

Vilsack, Grassley and Harkin - as well as Iowa's drug czar and attorney general - have said they do not support the recent changes.

"I am concerned," said Marvin Van Haaften, who heads the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy. "We spent over two years debating, studying, discussing and wisely constructing the (state) bill that would become our final product. Now, the federal measure is in a state of flux, and we could easily wind up with a bill that is considerably weaker than ours."

Iowa's state law, as well as local ordinances and voluntary restrictions taken by retailers in recent months, already are being credited for a steep drop in meth-lab production. The number of clandestine labs discovered statewide dropped 44 percent from January to April 2005 compared with the same period in 2004.

The statewide attention focused on pseudoephedrine "has triggered intense paranoia and fear among meth-makers," Van Haaften said.

Even greater reductions are expected in coming months, as Iowa's law, which went into effect May 21, and those recently enacted in surrounding states take hold.

Narcotics officials, meanwhile, say they have reason to fear the national bill could ultimately undermine states' efforts to get meth labs under control: Drug companies and their trade organizations have successfully fought tougher pseudoephedrine restrictions for years in many hard-hit meth states.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, an independent watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., drug companies and their trade organizations spent $758.8 million from 1998 to 2004 to lobby members of Congress.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, perhaps the most vocal opponent of pseudoephedrine restrictions, dramatically increased spending last year to almost $430,000, up from $260,000 in 2003, according to the association.

A representative of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Lonnie Wright, who heads Oklahoma's narcotics bureau, said he opposes any national law that would supersede state anti-meth laws, even though the national measure was originally drafted to mirror Oklahoma's current restrictions.

"The state of Oklahoma does not want to be told it can't solve its own crime problems, and I'm sure neither does Iowa," Wright said.

A congressional hearing to discuss changes to the Combat Meth Act has been scheduled for June 28 in Washington.

Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for Harkin's office, said the bill is in the "very early stages" of being debated.

"We are doing all we can to address these concerns," she said. "The goal is to have the federal law modeled on Iowa's."


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