Politics & Government

Bill would further track cold medicines

A South Sound lawmaker wants to further regulate and track sales of over-the-counter cold medicines – this time through an electronic database.

A bill by Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, would set up an automated computer system to track people who buy cold medicines such as Sudafed, which contains ingredients essential to methamphetamine production.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington opposes the bill, saying it would invade privacy and treat legitimate drug buyers like potential criminals in order to fight a problem that’s under control.

State law already requires stores to keep the cold medicines, known as “methamphetamine precursors,” out of public reach and limit how much a single customer can buy. A customer also must sign his name and address on a written log when purchasing the products.

But nothing prevents people from going from store to store and buying more cold medicine from different vendors, Campbell said.

And that method – known to law enforcement as “smurfing” – is one way methamphetamine cooks can still get enough precursors to produce the hazardous drug, said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs.

An electronic tracking system could help determine whether a customer has already purchased cold medicine elsewhere in Washington or even in another state, Pierce said.

“It will actually stop an illegal sale,” he said at a hearing for the bill Jan. 26.

The system would work by scanning a person’s driver’s license and blocking the sale if he has exceeded the legal purchase amount for the drugs. Cops could track purchases in real time instead of having to go back to review individual written logs, Pierce said.

“We’re not asking for any more data than is already put down on the sheet,” Pierce said. “We believe this is an excellent opportunity to continue to fight meth.”

Since the state enacted its first restrictions on cold medicine sales in 2005, the number of meth labs in Washington has dropped by more than 80 percent, according to data from the state Department of Ecology. Statewide, there were 186 drug lab cleanups in 2009, compared with 1,341 in 2005.

Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington, said the recent decline in meth labs shows that further regulation of cold medicines is unnecessary.

“I think we would be better served investing in proven treatment and prevention programs for meth than going after meth with a bill like this,” Narayan said at the bill hearing.

Maintaining customers’ privacy is another issue, Narayan said. The ACLU opposed requiring customers to sign written logs back in 2005 on the same grounds. Narayan said an electronic database would be even worse.

“It gives the governments and not just the retailer this private medical information without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” Narayan said. “It’s centralized, so it’s easier to inappropriately access than the existing individual pharmacy logs.”

Campbell, who also sponsored the 2005 legislation that first cracked down on cold medicine sales, said the electronic tracking system would help get rid of Washington’s remaining meth labs.

“It will further reduce the rate that has already dropped 80 percent since our first bill,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s proposal also would restrict the amount of certain cold medicines that individual customers can buy. Washington law now allows a person to buy up to six grams per day, but Campbell’s bill would limit sales to 3.6 grams per day and no more than nine grams in a 30-day period.

A separate bill by Campbell this session aims to make meth precursor drugs available by prescription only.

Pierce said he thinks the electronic monitoring system is preferable to requiring prescriptions because it preserves people’s access to cold medicine. His organization has pulled its support for Campbell’s prescription-only bill.

The electronic system would monitor sales of cold medicines with the ingredients ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. Campbell said it wouldn’t cost the state because drug manufacturers have offered to pay for it.

A few groups representing grocers and private retailers expressed concerns that they would have to pay some upfront equipment costs to get the system up and running, but Campbell said he’s working out those details.

“The state will not be paying into it – neither will the vendors,” Campbell said. “Something for free is a good deal.”

Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058