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Anti-Meth Bill Goes to Washington

WASHINGTON -- California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's decade-long effort to halt the nation's growing methamphetamine epidemic is expected to take a major step forward today when the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to consider her legislation to remove many cold medicines from store shelves and put them behind pharmacy counters as a way of limiting their sales and theft.

The bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., is patterned after new laws in Oklahoma and Iowa. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that it has gained momentum because many of the nation's biggest retailers have already taken steps to limit sales of the medications as methamphetamine abuse has spread from California's rural areas and the Midwest to other regions of the country.

"Meth has become a scourge upon our land,'' Feinstein said as she and Talent and two other co-sponsors spoke to reporters in the Capitol. "I'm ashamed to admit that California is the source for methamphetamine and of the big super-labs.'' The state supplies an estimated 80 percent of the highly addictive meth used across the country, and Feinstein's efforts have garnered support from much of California's law enforcement community.

The bill would require that any over-the-counter cold or sinus medications that contain pseudoephedrine -- a nasal decongestant used in cooking methamphetamine -- be sold only by a pharmacist or a pharmacist technician. Purchasers would have to show identification and sign a register.

The legislation would also set a limit on an individual's purchases of drugs containing pseudoephedrine to 7.5 grams a month, or about 250 pills, capsules or caplets. Retailers would be required to send computer records of purchases to state databases, to ensure that no individual exceeds the purchase limit.

Stores that don't have a pharmacist would still be allowed to sell the medications under the bill by requiring the Drug Enforcement Administration and the states to establish a registration requirement for store personnel.

To help combat the meth problem, the bill sets up a national meth treatment center to research the best ways of helping addicts kick their habits.

"This is the single worst drug threat that any of us have confronted in our lifetimes,'' said Talent.

The sponsors, who introduced the current bill last January, have since strengthened the proposal to meet the standards set in Iowa, which has the nation's toughest law on the issue. But they also have tried to ease concerns of convenience store owners, who said the earlier proposal put them at a competitive disadvantage by allowing only stores with pharmacists to sell the drugs.

The amendments and the changing environment seem to have lessened some opposition. The National Association of Drug Chain Stores has endorsed the revised bill. Some of the biggest chain stores, including Walgreens, Target, Albertson's, Rite-Aid, Longs Drugs and Safeway, also back it and have voluntarily acted to limit sales of the medications, which include such well-known names as Sudafed and Tylenol Sinus.

Talent said that Pfizer Inc., the maker of Sudafed, has endorsed the new bill.

The National Association of Convenience Stores, whose members don't have pharmacists on staff, still opposes the bill. The group is wary of the amended bill's provision that the sponsors say would allow them to sell the medications.

"They should treat all retailers the same,'' said Lyle Beckwith, the association's senior vice president for government relations. "If the product is dangerous, make it illegal. If it's safe, allow people to sell it responsibly and focus your efforts on the bad guys.''

Feinstein first introduced anti-meth legislation a decade ago, aimed at cracking down on mass sales of the precursor drugs used in meth. In 1999, Congress passed legislation limiting sales of medication, but it had an exemption for medication sold in blister packs, which today means just about all of the drugs. The sponsors say that has created the need for the current bill.

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