Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to combat meth production by limiting sales of a key ingredient averted a major roadblock after he agreed to slightly higher restrictions. But the deal with House lawmakers may not be the final word on the issue.
A House panel approved legislation Tuesday that would lower caps on pseudoephedrine, after blocking the governor's plan two weeks ago. The Haslam administration broke the impasse by agreeing to allow more sales of pseudoephedrine, a drug that's essential to making methamphetamine and is found in many cold and allergy medications.
But the state Senate favors tougher restrictions on pseudoephedrine, leaving the debate in flux.
Tuesday's hearing by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on meth legislation was riddled with tension. With a pair of burn victims from meth explosions — women who were featured in a three-part series in The Tennessean this month — faced lawmakers from the gallery's front row. Lawmakers avoided any actions that could sink meth legislation for the year. But they also refused to give ground in a debate that has pitted drug companies, pharmacists, cold and allergy sufferers and law enforcement officials against one another.
All sides say they want to strike a balance between the interests of legitimate consumers and the state's need to stop the scourge of meth production. Tennessee currently ranks second in the nation in the number of meth labs seized annually, and it could rise to the top of the standings unless more restrictions are placed on pseudoephedrine.
On Tuesday, state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, presented an amendment on the Haslam administration's behalf to House Bill 1574. The new plan calls for setting the monthly limit on pseudoephedrine purchases at 5.76 grams, the amount of pseudoephedrine found in 48 typical, 12-hour tablets, and an annual limit of 28.8 grams, or 240 tablets.
The proposal represented a loosening of the plan the governor announced in January to limit buyers to 4.8 grams of pseudoephedrine a month, the amount in 40 tablets. State Rep. Tony Shipley, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee and a Republican from Kingsport, refused to hold a vote on that proposal March 4.
Several members of the panel said Tuesday they would not have accepted that limit because they felt it would hamper frequent allergy sufferers.
"I feel like this amendment makes it the best bill we could possibly ever imagine," said state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown.
He and other members of the committee tried to get Hawk to promise not to allow other amendments to the bill later, which would lock their decision in place. But Hawk flatly refused to close the door on that possibility.
That could mean going back to Haslam's monthly limit of 40 tablets or perhaps even imposing a requirement that pseudoephedrine buyers get a prescription from a doctor or pharmacist, an idea some state senators favor.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee is scheduled to take the issue up next, perhaps as soon as Wednesday afternoon.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or on Twitter @chassisk.