A bill that would make certain cold and allergy medications available only by prescription has sparked debate about how the growing South Carolina methamphetamine problem should be tackled.
Law enforcement officials say the rising number of meth labs indicates the current restrictions on the purchase of over-the-counter medicines, which contain an ingredient used to make the illicit drug, aren't working.
Though Beaufort County authorities say the problem isn't as bad here as in other parts of the state, two mobile meth-lab operations have been discovered in recent months.
The mobile method of cooking the drug in a 16-ounce plastic drink bottle -- known as "one-pot cooks" or "shake and bake" -- is becoming more popular despite limits on how much pseudoephedrine can be purchased by an individual, according to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.
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SLED supports the proposal by Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, that would require a prescription to purchase medicines like Sudafed and Actifed.
Others, including state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, aren't so sure.
Although cold and allergy remedies can be used to make meth, so can soda bottles and coffee filters, Davis said.
"Does a restriction on the purchase of one thing logically lead to a similar restriction on others?" Davis wonders.
Davis is on the Medical Affairs Committee, where the bill was introduced. It has not yet been discussed, and Davis said he and other lawmakers will have to carefully consider whether it is warranted.
Among his concerns are whether hundreds of thousands of law-abiding South Carolinians should be subjected to "monitoring, inconvenience and constraint" because a small part are abusing the commonplace remedies.
In a recent interview, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said any obstacle for those obtaining chemicals to make meth is a positive step in the war on the drug. But he also acknowledged that making the medications prescription-only would be "unfortunate" for those who need them for legitimate health reasons.
The S.C. Sheriffs' Association will discuss the proposal and adopt a position next month, according to executive director Jeff Moore.
"It could pose a difficult situation for people who haven't done anything wrong," Moore said. "We have to balance that concern with the fact that possibly half of all Sudafed sold in America isn't used for medical purposes at all."
Purchases of drugs containing pseudoephedrine are tracked through a statewide electronic database that alerts officers when large purchases of the drug are made. The medications are kept behind pharmacy counters, and their purchase requires a driver's license, which is swiped to see if the customer's monthly limit has been met.
Moore said meth users and manufacturers can get around those limits through a practice called "smurfing," in which several people buy the drugs at different locations.
Because the statewide tracking is not having its intended effect, Moore said officials need to look for other solutions.
Solicitor Duffie Stone said he has yet to make up his mind about the bill. His office, which oversees the 14th Judicial Circuit that includes Beaufort and Jasper counties, handled few meth cases last year, but the statewide tracking was useful for one of those prosecutions, he said.
"I like the registration we currently have. ... I think it's been a useful tool for law enforcement, but I don't know how useful it has been statewide," Stone said. "I'm still researching and studying it."
The bill's opponents are mobilizing to stop it.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association has hired Felkel Group of Greenville to lobby against the bill. In news releases, the Felkel Group has said the proposal could drive up costs and hurt consumers who need the drugs for medical conditions.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.