Narcotics agents and prosecutors on the front line of Oklahoma's war against methamphetamine sought a seemingly simple fix: limit access to a key ingredient of the powerful stimulant by requiring a doctor's prescription to buy it.
Instead, the group, which usually has a lot of influence at the Statehouse, found itself outmanned by a politically connected and well-financed drug lobby that funded radio ads, lobbyists and a local public relations firm to resist the plan.
Just three weeks into the legislative session, two prescription-only bills were killed in separate House and Senate committees, and leaders in both the House and Senate acknowledged on Thursday it's unlikely the issue will be revived this year.
Along with Oklahoma, the pharmaceutical industry has succeeded in stopping prescription-only bills in two other states and stalling the measures in two more, highlighting the tricky politics that have placed lawmakers between big business' opposition to more regulation and law enforcement's pleas to find ways to stop the growing meth scourge.
"The scare tactics used by the pharmaceutical companies have clearly worked," said Greg Mashburn, one of several district attorneys who delivered a passionate plea to Oklahoma lawmakers earlier this week in an attempt to keep a prescription-only bill alive. "Shame on the pharmaceutical companies for knowing they're profiting off meth and pouring tons of money into this effort so they can continue to profit off of it."
Methamphetamine, a powerful and highly addictive illegal stimulant, has long been a problem in Oklahoma, which is consistently ranked as one of the top states in the country for number of meth lab seizures per year.
The problem has surged in recent years in large part because of a new "shake-and-bake" method of cooking the drug that requires only a small amount of pseudoephedrine and some easy-to-obtain ingredients that can be cooked in a 2-liter bottle on the run. In December, a woman was arrested for trying to cook meth by mixing ingredients in the back of a Tulsa Walmart store.
The bills pushed by Oklahoma prosecutors and drug agents target cold and allergy medicines like Claritin-D, Advil Cold & Sinus and Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to make meth. It would have required a doctor's prescription to buy the tablet form of those products, while liquid and gel-caps still could be purchased over the counter since experts say those forms of the drug can't be easily converted into meth.
A Washington-based group that represents the top manufacturers and distributors of nonprescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines has waged fierce opposition on prescription-only bills in other states, stalling measures this year in Hawaii and California and successfully stopping measures last year in Maine and Missouri.
"We believe that requiring a prescription for these medicines containing pseudoephedrine will not solve this problem, but will only place new costs and access restrictions on law abiding Oklahomans who rely on these medicines for relief," said Elizabeth Funderburk, spokeswoman for the group, Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
"We have a shared goal in making sure these medicines do not end up in the hands of criminals, but we believe law abiding citizens should not be forced to bear the burden of a prescription mandate."
Measures have passed in Mississippi and Oregon and are being considered in a handful of other states besides Oklahoma, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana and Alabama.
Several local associations representing doctors, pharmacists and grocers have joined the opposition in Oklahoma.
"You're making people come to the doctor for an office visit and pay a co-pay just to get a cold medicine," said Dr. Michael Cooper, a family practitioner in Claremore. "I already have patients who won't come to the office when they're sick because they can't afford the co-pay.
"We're going to clog the system and make things worse."
Opponents of Oklahoma's prescription-only fight also suggest determined meth cooks will find a way around the ban _ either by getting the pseudoephedrine from doctors or by finding a way to extract the ingredient from gel-caps or liquid.
Instead, they suggested compromise legislation that will link Oklahoma's electronic tracking system for pseudoephedrine sales with other states and use real-time data to stop people from purchasing more than a limited amount of the drug. Similar high-tech tracking systems are in place in 17 other states. Those bills also reduce the amount pseudoephedrine a person can legally purchase from 9 grams per month to 7.2 grams per month, which Funderburk said will be the lowest gram amount in the nation. Similar bills in the House and Senate both have cleared committees.
"My proposal is a way to arm law enforcement with resources while allowing law-abiding citizens the ability to get the medicines they need," Sen. Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso, said in a statement. "Under this bill, consumers will still be able to do that without the burden and expense of a doctor's visit."
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy