A Senate panel approved Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to combat meth labs by tightening restrictions on a key ingredient, setting up a potential showdown with their counterparts in the state House of Representatives.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 on Tuesday evening to pass Haslam's plan to cap pseudoephedrine purchases at two 20-tablet boxes a month and six boxes a year. They also rejected a measure that advanced last week in the House.
Members of the committee indicated they were willing to take an even harder line on pseudoephedrine than the governor suggested. Their stance appeared to place them on a collision course with the House — raising the risk that the Tennessee General Assembly could end this session without agreeing to any new controls on pseudoephedrine whatsoever.
"The worst-case scenario is for us to bog down and not pass anything meaningful," said Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons. "But I don't think that's going to happen. ... We're working hard on it."
The committee spent more than three hours debating nine bills. Most members appeared to favor making pseudoephedrine available only by prescription. That has been thought of as the harshest proposal to regulate the drug, which is found in many cold and allergy medicines but also is essential to making methamphetamine.
Haslam has avoided a prescription requirement. Instead he favors cutting the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be bought in Tennessee from the current limit of 9 grams a month to 4.8 grams, the amount contained in 40 12-hour tablets. Haslam also has proposed setting an annual limit on pseudoephedrine purchases of 14.4 grams, about a 2½-month supply.
Striking a balance
Law enforcement officials prefer a prescription requirement but are willing to accept the governor's proposal. They said it would strike a balance between stopping "smurfing" — meth producers' practice of getting around limits by recruiting people to buy small amounts of pseudoephedrine for them — and the needs of allergy sufferers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, leaned toward requiring a prescription, with a provision that a pharmacist would write one for a patient. Backers of the idea said it would not burden legitimate buyers, because they would be at a pharmacy anyway, and would give pharmacists more power to turn away suspected smurfers.
Gibbons and the governor's other allies promised to consider a prescription requirement if the committee members would send his measure, Senate Bill 1751, to the Senate Health Committee.
Meanwhile, senators delivered a likely fatal blow to a less restrictive measure, House Bill 331, by voting 5-3 to reject it.
That measure had been approved last week by the House criminal justice subcommittee and was championed by its chairman, state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport. He said Haslam's bill could meet the same fate when it's taken up next week.
"That's a nonstarter," he said.
Those weren't the only measures presented on Tuesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill that would make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance, as well as a prescription requirement.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, also laid out his idea: limits that would let allergy sufferers buy up to a 90-day supply without any restrictions. It was defeated along with Shipley's bill, but a top lobbyist for pseudoephedrine makers said later that his group might have accepted at least some provisions.
"We're willing to come down to that," said Carlos Gutierrez, director of state government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. "What we have difficulty in supporting is what the governor was proposing."