States See Lobbyists' Hands in Meth Law

Congress considers a federal law mirroring what more than 30 states have done: combat methamphetamine labs by putting Sudafed and similar drugs behind the counter. But some states are concerned that would, in effect, pre-empt their efforts because their laws are tougher than what is likely to come out of Congress.

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Across the Midwest, law enforcement says it is making progress in the battle against illegal methamphetamine labs. Police and prosecutors say that's because of tough new state laws. And they're worried that new federal legislation currently being considered in Congress will be weaker and undercut their progress. NPR's Greg Allen has the story.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

In Iowa, the State Police Division of Narcotics responds whenever clandestine meth labs are reported across the state, and it's a job that keeps them busy. Last year Iowa had the nation's second-largest number of meth lab busts, more than 1,400. At Narcotics Division headquarters in Des Moines, Special Agent Doug Hurley(ph) has a trunk full of videotapes of meth lab busts he's participated in. He plays one from December of 1998.

(Soundbite of videotaped methamphetamine laboratory bust)

Unidentified Man #1: Get over here now!

ALLEN: Police investigating reports of a suspected meth lab at a Des Moines warehouse were met by a man who began spraying ether at them. Ether is one of the fuels used in cooking meth. The suspect then set fire to the premises.

(Soundbite of videotaped methamphetamine laboratory bust)

Unidentified Man #2: Fire!

Unidentified Man #3: Get out!

Unidentified Man #2: Fire!

Unidentified Man #3: Get out!

Special Agent DOUG HURLEY (Narcotics Division, Iowa State Police): We had a fear of the meth lab being in there and exploding. We had the fear of two other individuals inside with him. And we also had the fear of the public safety in and around that area as well.

(Soundbite of videotaped methamphetamine laboratory bust)

Unidentified Man #3: Get out! Get out!

ALLEN: There were months last year when Iowa State Police discovered seven meth labs every day. A year later the picture is decidedly different. Meth lab busts are down by more than 50 percent, a drop police attribute to a tough new state law. In March, Iowa joined a growing list of states restricting sales of pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine, found in Sudafed, Contac and other decongestants, is a prime ingredient in illegal meth. Like more than a dozen other states, Iowa made pseudoephedrine a Schedule V drug. That means it can now only be sold in limited quantities by pharmacists to customers who show ID and sign a log.

Ken Carter, the head of Iowa's Division of Narcotics, says the new law has had a dramatic impact, but he's worried it could all be undone by a new federal anti-meth law being considered in Congress.

Mr. KEN CARTER (Division of Narcotics, Iowa State Police): Iowa now has the toughest law in the United States. At least for the first two months, it has shown a definite impact. And we feel that what they're proposing will weaken Iowa law.

ALLEN: The legislation concerning Carter is the federal Combat Meth Act. In many ways, it mirrors Iowa's law, putting drugs containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter and requiring buyers to show ID and sign a log. What Carter and law enforcement officials in some other states don't like is a provision in the law that would pre-empt state anti-meth laws. Missouri Republican Senator Jim Talent is one of the bill's main sponsors. He says one of the benefits of a federal anti-meth law is that it would establish a single national standard for pseudoephedrine sales that, he argues, would benefit both law enforcement and consumers.

Senator JIM TALENT (Republican, Missouri): The single standard permits the law enforcement to, you know, enforce the laws as part of a seamless web because everybody's going to be reporting and accounting the same way. And we're also hopeful that it will hold down unnecessary costs. You know, it's going to be a little harder for consumers to get these cold medicines, and, you know, we don't want to make it more costly for them at the same time.

ALLEN: Because of the new state laws, Pfizer and other drug companies are now beginning to sell versions of their decongestants that don't contain pseudoephedrine and which can't be used to make meth. But at the same time drug companies and retailers are actively lobbying in Washington for a federal law that would pre-empt the growing number of state anti-meth measures. John Motley is with the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group that represents Wal-Mart and some 1,300 retailers and wholesalers.

Mr. JOHN MOTLEY (Food Marketing Institute): If you have 50 different state standards and, within those states, literally hundreds of local standards, it's much more difficult for them and for their employees to understand what they have to do.

ALLEN: In Iowa, Oklahoma and other states, law enforcement officials are taking their concerns about the Combat Meth Act to their representatives in Congress. Because it's still in committee, it's not clear exactly what the final bill will contain. But the head of Iowa's Office of Drug Control, Marvin Van Haaften, says he's concerned about provisions that he says would actually weaken Iowa's tough law, including one allowing drugs containing pseudoephedrine to be sold by convenience stores in areas where there are no pharmacies.

Mr. MARVIN VAN HAAFTEN (Iowa's Office of Drug Control): I know the intense lobbying efforts we faced here. I'm sure at the federal level it is that times 10 or perhaps even more. It worries me because whatever the federal law is, if it pre-empts the state law, that's what we have to live with.

ALLEN: At bottom, Van Haaften says, there's a suspicion among state law enforcement officials that drug companies and retailers who fought and lost when anti-meth laws were being debated in state capitals are now just taking the battle to Washington. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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