A northern Indiana meth clandestine lab. (Kokomo Tribune photo)
A northern Indiana meth clandestine lab. (Kokomo Tribune photo)
INDIANAPOLIS – Pharmacists will soon have a legal right to stop suspicious customers from buying cold medicines that can be used to “cook” homemade methamphetamine. A bill passed in the waning hours of the Legislature's annual meeting was championed by local pharmacists and police from rural communities that are burdened with toxic meth labs. “I think we’re going to see a major reduction in meth labs in this state,” said Rep. Steve Davisson, R-Salem, a small-town pharmacist who’s seen Indiana rise to lead the nation in meth lab busts.

The measure met fierce opposition from large chain retailers who sell pseudoephedrine cold medicine. And it stops short of what police and prosecutors have long sought - an outright ban on over-the-counter sales of the medicine.

Instead, the bill puts pharmacists in the role of gatekeeper. It allows them to sell the current legal amount of pseudoephedrine to customers whom they know and trust. They can also sell more limited amounts – or none at all - to customers whom they don't know or who raise suspicions.

The bill protects pharmacists from lawsuits filed by irate customers who've been refused the medicine. It prevents their corporate bosses from firing them if sales of pseudoephedrine drop.

“I’ve talked to a lot of chain-store pharmacists who said they wanted to be able to deny a sale, but their bosses wouldn’t let them,” Davisson said.

The measure carried by two rural lawmakers - Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, and Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn - marks a breakthrough in a stalemate over how to combat meth labs. Smaltz told Howey Politics Indiana Friday morning that he had reviewed early notes on the legislation. “We got virtually every single piece we wanted” despite vociferous opposition from the consumer health lobby.  Smaltz believes that lawmakers will be able to see if the law is working by late this summer.

Matt Lloyd, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mike Pence, told HPI on Thursday that the governor would be “very inclined” to sign the law.

The idea came from rural pharmacists who realized that lawmakers, pressured by retailers and drug lobbyists, weren’t ready to take the controversial step of requiring prescriptions for cold remedies. Only two states — Oregon and Mississippi — have done that.

But the pharmacists also were frustrated by a current law that simply requires them to track pseudoephedrine sales and cut off customers once they've hit a state-set limit. Those limits were put into place to identify “smurfers” — straw buyers paid by meth-makers hoping to cloak their purchases.

The Indiana Retail Council, representing big chain stores, has argued that tracking is enough. Further steps to restrict sales, it has said, will unnecessarily inconvenience legitimate buyers of cold medicine.

After five years of the limit law, Indiana still ranked among the top five states for meth lab seizures. “The average pharmacist behind the counter knew that what was going out from our stores was poisoning our communities,” said Rick Koomler, former president of the Indiana Academy of Community Pharmacists who helped shape the current legislation.

Some issues have yet to be addressed. The state Board of Pharmacy, for example, has to draw up emergency rules for pharmacists to identify “customers of record." Those are people who will be able to access the current legal amount of pseudoephedrine if the pharmacist approves.

That should come by the time the law, if signed by Gov. Mike Pence, goes into effect July 1. No one predicts the measure will stop the use of methamphetamine - a cheap, highly addictive drug. But Head and Davisson said the law could make the drug less available and drive up prices. And it could curb the highly volatile homemade meth labs that produce toxic chemicals and are prone to explosions. Arkansas saw a nearly 50 percent drop in meth lab seizures after passing a similar pharmacist discretion law, according the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Steve Buschmann, lobbyist for the Indiana State Police Alliance, called the legislation inspired by the pharmacists “the first real step” taken by the state to put a dent in meth labs.

“Our goal is to spend our time going after meth gangs, not cleaning up after meth labs,” he said. “This is going to help do that.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com