WASHINGTON - Central Valley meth hunters could get new tools and more money under a big bill the Senate approved Thursday.
The changes would make it harder to buy certain cold medicines. Tougher penalties could await drug traffickers. More than a half-billion dollars could be used to train police, clean up meth labs and help the children of addicts.
"This is a giant step forward," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday afternoon, "and it's been hard to do."
By an 89-10 margin, after brushing aside a Democratic filibuster effort, the Senate approved broader anti-terrorism legislation that included the methamphetamine provisions. The antiterrorism bill, dubbed the USA Patriot Act, was controversial among civil libertarians.
The anti-meth package, a version of which was introduced several years ago, also faced hurdles. Feinstein acknowledged Thursday that "it's been very difficult to legislate in this area" because of resistance from pharmaceutical companies and retailers.
Both face constraints under the legislation that's expected to win approval by the House as early as Tuesday and then go to the White House for President Bush's signature.
Cold medicines containing the popular meth ingredients pseudoephedrine or ephedrine would have to be placed behind a counter for sale.
Prescriptions won't be needed, but customers will have to show identification and sign logbooks. They also will be limited to buying 3.6 grams or 120 pills a day and no more than 9 grams a month.
Feeling the political pressure, major firms including Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Rite-Aid and Longs Drugs last year said they would voluntarily place cold medicines behind counters.
"Altering and-or abusing drugs goes against the most basic and fundamental principles of pharmacies and the pharmacists that operate them," Warren F. Bryant, president and chief executive officer of Longs Drug Stores, said last year.
Meds Go Behind Counters Sept. 30
Stores that don't have pharmacy counters will have to obtain approval through the Drug Enforcement Administration for alternative means of securing cold medicines. The sale limit requirements will take effect 30 days after Bush signs the bill, while the medicines will have to be placed behind counters by Sept. 30.
"The pharmaceutical industry is a very powerful lobby in Congress," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, "and I'm sure they weren't too gleeful about this."
The Central Valley HIDTA since 1999 has targeted the methamphetamine trade between Sacramento and Kern counties.
State Department Was Hesitant
While officials say some of the region's biggest meth labs have moved, several over the border to Mexico, the Central Valley remains red hot.
In November 2003, Stanislaus and San Joaquin County investigators cracked a meth ring and seized four labs, 40 pounds of finished methamphetamine and, according to the task force's report to the White House, 480,000 pseudoephedrine pills.
"It's the right thing to do," Ruzzamenti said of the new legislation, "and it's the right time to do it."
But the State Department had some hesitation behind the scenes, as diplomats worried about provisions requiring reports on the five countries that export the most meth precursor chemicals.
Those new reporting requirements survived.
In a sign of the methamphetamine's geographic dispersion, Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent joined Feinstein in pushing the bill.
Talent on Thursday called the legislation "the most comprehensive anti-meth bill ever introduced."
The cold medicine sale restrictions are modeled on what some states, including Oklahoma and California, already imposed. The federal legislation stiffens existing penalties and adds some new ones - for instance, lengthening prison terms for manufacturing meth in a house where children live.
Financial reinforcements also will be provided. A "Meth Hot Spot" program that provides $66 million a year for training and equipment would gain $99 million a year for the next five years.
It could help local law enforcement agencies buy hazardous materials suits that can cost upward of $5,000 each but are necessary in cleaning meth lab sites.
"That gear is quite expensive," Ruzzamenti said.
An additional $20 million a year is authorized for a "drug-endangered children" program.
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