By BRIAN HOWEY, guest columnist
INDIANAPOLIS — The dreary reality for the transformation of the Crossroads of America to “Indiana: The Methamphetamine State!” reached its low point in February 2014, when a Washington Post headline stated: “Congrats Missouri, you’re no longer the nation’s meth-bust capital.”
That dubious distinction belonged to Indiana, where 1,808 clandestine meth labs had been busted.
For every one discovered, another three or four existed in the shadows. Even more appalling were the 458 Hoosier kids found living in these toxic cesspools and hovels.
It begged questions internally at Howey Politics Indiana: How is it OK that Indiana continually leads the nation in clandestine meth labs? Why are hundreds of municipal and state employees being injured at meth labs as firefighters, cops and code enforcers? Why is it OK that in 2013, 458 Hoosier kids were found in contaminated meth labs? Why is it OK that cities and towns are having to mitigate thousands of contaminated homes, cars and hotel rooms? Why, why, why?
And are there solutions to be found in other states? Howey Politics reporter Matthew Butler, now working as a policy analyst for House Republicans, learned that Mississippi, Oregon, Missouri and Tennessee restricted pseudoephedrine sales at pharmacies for people who are not “patients of record.” The impacts were dramatic. Mississippi saw meth lab busts decline from 692 in 2009 to eight in 2013. Why shouldn’t Indiana follow this lead?
In 2016, a coalition that had been forming included State Rep. Ben Smaltz and State Sen. Randy Head, mayors with Accelerate Indiana Municipalities; the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council; and the Indiana State Police Alliance. The coalition ended up paddling in the same direction, producing Senate Enrolled Act 80.
It was a long slog as the Consumer Health Care Association conducted a statewide radio ad campaign warning consumers they would not find a ready supply of pseudoephedrine products. The legislation was bottled up in committee until House Speaker Brian Bosam intervened, clearing the way for a floor vote.
In one of the more dramatic presentations in modern legislative history, Smaltz appeared on the House floor flanked by two easels bearing large posters showing how much PSE could be purchased at one time by one individual. “I think that was shocking for a lot of people,” Smaltz said. “People could see the obscene amount of Sudafed you could buy. Why do we have to have the gram limit set so high?”
This past week, new Indiana State Police statistics revealed meth lab incidents have fallen 74 percent since 2015 after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the law, declining from 1,452 in 2015 to 943 in 2016 and 371 for 2017. Even more dramatically, the number of children recovered in meth labs dropped precipitously. After 458 were found in 2013, some 291 were discovered in 2015, and 49 in 2017, an 83 percent decline.
Smaltz’s Senate Enrolled Act 80 maintained rightful patient access to cold medications by empowering pharmacists to use their professional judgment in determining whether there was a legitimate medical need for pseudoephedrine before approving a sale.
Dr. Jennifer Walthall, secretary of the Family Social Services Administration, worked on SEA 80 within the Pence administration. “The image that I recall most vividly, was having a room full of people, people talking about the same common goals,” she said of the shaping of SEA 80. “We’ve got health, health care finance, state police, the legislative, justice, and executive branches at the table. We asked, ‘What are the things we can control right now?’ We were all listening to each other.”
When Gov. Pence signed the law, he noted, he called it a “common sense solution” that created “new barriers” for meth cooks.
“I think it’s going to make a big difference in the number of meth labs in Indiana,” State Sen. Randy Head said at the time.
Asked if he has received complaints from consumers and pharmacists about accessing PSE, Smaltz said, “I haven’t heard one complaint. I get the thumbs up from pharmacists in my district.”
Essentially, SEA 80 has crimped the widespread collateral damage with the production of meth. But meth is still readily available. Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin observed, “Law enforcement is encouraged about the reduction in the meth labs seized but understand that the fight is far from over and total victory over the problem would be zero meth labs seized. Unfortunately, another reason for the reduction is the increased flow of cheap methamphetamine being funneled into the United States and eventually into Indiana by Latin American criminal gangs. The increase in the rise of heroin use is also a factor and an extremely disturbing fact.”
But the fact is, SEA 80 has crimped the collateral damage. “I’m still seeing meth, still seeing people taking meth, but not like I used to,” said Smaltz, R-Auburn. “I was seeing hundreds and hundreds in my district. We were seeing the pots along roads, outside my business, in trash collections. That’s not how it is today. I’m not seeing kids getting yanked out of these hellholes. You can fight meth and knock it down, and we’ll turn sights on illegal opioids, and we’re going to fight that and knock it down and be ready for what else comes.”
That “what comes next” is the opioid crisis. I’ll write about what comes next on that front in the coming weeks.
Brian Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.