Brian Howey

Indiana had 1,488 methamphetamine busts in 2014, leading the nation. That’s down from 1,700 the year before, but then consider what local prosecutors are saying about “Indiana! The Meth State.”

Delaware County Prosecutor Jeff Arnold estimates the actual number of meth labs statewide numbers “easily” over 5,000. His county led the state in total busts with 158, yet neighboring counties that he believes have similar meth problems had busts numbering only in the single digits. Washington County Prosecutor Dustin Houchin, felt the same about 2013’s bust numbers: “For every one (lab seizure) there’s four or five more out there,” he told The Salem Leader.

A 2009 estimate by the RAND Corporation placed the cost of all meth-related problems in Indiana at $1.87 billion in 2005. Since then meth production has only increased and dispersed, so it’s safe to assume such an approximate figure for today would be much higher.

With hundreds of children found on the premises of these busted labs, with dozens of police officers injured in their pursuit, with thousands of meth cooking pots dumped along county roads creating bio-hazards, with all the fire units and haz-mats on standby during raids, and the exploding hotel rooms that are the bane of mayors, sheriffs and police chiefs across the state, you could expect the Indiana General Assembly and Gov. Mike Pence to not just stand there, but to do something, right?

Nope.

Last year, a prescription requirement for pseudoephedrine (PSE), the key ingredient for Hoosier meth cookers, authored by Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, was heard by the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee, but Chairman Jud McMillin did not allow a vote. This year it appears a PSE prescription bill by Mount Vernon Republican Rep. Wendy McNamara will again flounder in committee. House Public Health Committee Chair Ed Clere has decided against hearing her HB 1390 while similar Senate legislation faces likely opposition in committee.

Some Hoosier lawmakers have not stood still. In 2011, Indiana joined a 35-state database known as the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx). It enforces in real time at the point of sale the state’s individual daily, monthly, and yearly limits on PSE. Moreover, the state has reduced those limits and increased criminal penalties in recent years. As NPLEx severely constrained Indiana’s meth cooks, they turned to so-called “smurfs” and small-batch cooking techniques. Within legal limits, smurfs in Indiana can supply a cook a six-month supply over a year. “With the bottle labs and the smurfs, you have virtually no opportunity to interdict it because the purchasing of the precursors is legal,” Rep. Smaltz explained. “It only becomes illegal when someone gives it to someone they know is going to make meth with it.”

Prescription proponents argue states with the requirement saw a precipitous drop in meth production as neither cooks nor smurfs could easily source PSE. Mississippi, for example, saw its meth lab busts drop from a high of 692 in 2009 to only eight labs in 2013.

So why, why, why is this no-brainer solution not only being ignored, but Chairman Clere has decided not to even hear any of the bills before his House committee. I’ll let him explain: “I have a lot of sympathy for the communities that are disproportionately affected by meth,” Clere explained to Howey Politics Indiana. “But, I’m not convinced it’s the right solution. I appreciate the desire for compromise but I’m just not sure it would solve the problem. PSE is a safe, effective, and inexpensive remedy. I believe it should continue to be available over the counter. I’ve taken a hard look at the house bills. It’s not like I haven’t considered them.”

A PSE prescription requirement would run counter, Clere argues, to efforts to alleviate another serious statewide issue, Indiana’s current and worsening health care provider shortage. “One of the craziest arguments I’ve heard is doctors don’t want to prescribe it,” Smaltz told HPI. “They don’t want to be the gatekeeper of prescription drugs? Then don’t be a doctor because you already are.”

“I firmly believe,” Rep. McNamara said, “that the only real way to address the scourge of meth is to make PSE a prescription.” Like McNamara, Smaltz is still trying tighten regulations where he can that specifically target meth production. They see them as only half measures, but progress nonetheless. His HB 1602 would raise penalties for manufacturing and possession of meth to a Level 4 felony with extra sentencing for doing so in the presence of a minor.

“It also has a unique feature that specifically targets smurfs,” Smaltz explained. “That is the requirement that the boxes be individually serialized.” When meth labs are busted, sometimes PSE cold medicine boxes, blister packs, and even loose pills are found. Theoretically, this would enable police to track the PSE back to the original smurf. Smaltz hopes it acts a strong deterrent against those considering smurfing for extra cash.

The bottom line is Indiana has a huge problem, but Gov. Pence has opted not to lead on the issue and many of the potential solutions are not even going to be debated in the General Assembly.

That, my friends, is called leading from behind the meth pot.

Howey Politics Indiana reporter Matthew Butler contributed to this column.

The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol and Howey Politics on Facebook.