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Congress Moves to Curb Nation’s Meth Problem

Times Staff Writer

Responding to methamphetamine abuse that plagues much of the country, congressional leaders hope to pass legislation this week aimed at making it harder to obtain an ingredient in common cold medicine that can be used to make the illegal drug.

Under the measure, retailers would have to keep nonprescription cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine behind store counters. Buyers would be limited on how much they could purchase and would be required to show identification and sign a log book.

“The growing meth epidemic in our country shows no deference to district or party line,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), co-chairman of the 135-member Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine, said Tuesday. “This is an issue everyone can agree is wreaking havoc on communities across the nation.”

Although the effort to combat methamphetamine has strong bipartisan support, the measure has been attached to an extension of the controversial anti-terrorism law, the Patriot Act. Renewal of the Patriot Act is uncertain because a number of Republicans and Democrats argue that the law infringes on the civil liberties of U.S. citizens.

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Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) joined with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in pushing the anti-methamphetamine provisions.

Talent said the measure would “make it harder for dishonest people to get the ingredients they need to make meth, while ensuring honest people can access the medicine they need.”

A number of states, including California, have enacted similar legislation. Oregon, with perhaps the strictest law, requires a doctor’s prescription for medicine containing pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed and Claritin D.

Some stores have voluntarily limited sales of such cold and allergy medications and moved them behind counters.

But Rich Chrismer, a spokesman for Talent, said the federal legislation would keep people from “crossing state lines to get the products they need to cook meth.”

The trade association representing drugstore chains had expressed a preference for a federal standard, contending that a “patchwork of more than three dozen different state requirements, in addition to scores of local ordinances in cities, towns, and counties throughout the country” confused consumers and law enforcement.

State officials succeeded in persuading federal lawmakers not to prevent them from enacting stronger laws.

Methamphetamine abuse has been a particular scourge in California, and the federal legislation would be stronger than state law. The California statute restricts the purchase of medicine containing pseudoephedrine to no more than three packages or 9 grams in a single transaction.

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The federal legislation would limit the sale of such medicines to any person to 9 grams a month (roughly 300 pills) and 3.6 grams (about 30 pills) in a single day. Violators would be subject to a $25,000 fine.

The federal legislation is patterned after a law in Oklahoma credited with bringing about a steep decline in methamphetamine labs in the state.

Last year, 43 so-called super labs, capable of producing large amounts of the drug, were discovered by authorities in California, more than in any other state.

In terms of all labs seized, Missouri was first with 1,113, followed by Tennessee with 932. A total of 498 labs were found in California, including 93 in San Bernardino County, 68 in Riverside County and 46 in Los Angeles County, according to the state attorney general’s office.

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Elizabeth Assey, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Assn., which represents manufacturers and distributors of nonprescription, over-the-counter medicines, said that her group supported the federal legislation. But she added: “The key is going to be addressing the demand.... Putting medicine behind the counter isn’t going to wipe out” methamphetamine problems.

Congressional leaders and White House officials on Tuesday stepped up their efforts to gather support for renewing the Patriot Act that includes the anti-methamphetamine provision.

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales traveled to Capitol Hill to warn lawmakers that failure to do so before adjourning for the year would harm the nation’s ability to fight terrorism.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats, led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), argued that Congress needed more time to rework the bill, which Congress passed shortly after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

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Civil libertarians have urged more judicial review and greater congressional oversight of the way the FBI and other agencies use powers granted to them in the act.

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Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.


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