Moral Absurdity

The Arizona Legislature should start caring more about children than zygotes

Now let me get this straight.

It's okay for a pharmacist to refuse to fill a medical doctor's prescription for a morning-after pill on religious grounds.

But there is no way the very same pharmacist should be required to put cold pills containing pseudoephedrine -- the key ingredient for trailer-trash brews of crystal meth -- behindthe counter.

In other words, let's let druggists wield an unchecked moral veto on a woman's right to choose.

But let's not make pharmacists do a little extra work when it comes to a product that, when used to manufacture methamphetamine, is known to kill kids and mess up unborn babies.

Absurd, right? Well, not to Arizona's crusading Republicans, who piously control both the Arizona House and Senate as if they were a papal conclave.

Under the Republican banner, the emergency abortion of a zygote (that's a couple of cells along the way toward becoming a human being) is verboten if the person behind the drug counter says so -- for whatever reason.

But the reality that children are getting doused in mind-rotting chemical hazes of sulfuric acid and rat poison wafting from fiberglass bathtubs of crystal meth is just the unavoidable cost of doing business.

So much for protecting the helpless -- who are already born.

What I'm talking about here is that Religious Right fanatics dominating our Republican legislative leadership have rammed through House Bill 2541 allowing health-care professionals -- including pharmacists, for Christ's sake -- to refuse to supply emergency contraceptives on religious or moral grounds.

"Not only do women have the right to choose, but so do the doctors and pharmacists," spews Senator Dean Martin, sponsor of the overreaching bill that has got to be unconstitutional.

Governor Janet Napolitano has strongly hinted that she will veto the moronic idea. But unlike the Legislature's first budget proposal that she rejected seconds after it landed on her desk, Napolitano hasn't yet put the kibosh on this so-called "conscience" bill as this column goes to press.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders -- including my favorite East Valley Mormon kooks, Representative Russell Pearce, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Representative Eddie Farnsworth, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- don't want anything to get in the way of the bottom line.

Even if kids' lives are at stake.

Pearce and Farnsworth are against other legislation modeled after an Oklahoma law approved last year that slashed the number of clandestine meth labs operating in that state by 80 percent.

Arizona should pass a similar law before the Legislature adjourns, because (unlike what Martin wants to do) this is an idea that makes sense.

I'm normally not an advocate of drug-control laws. I think the War on Drugs has been a miserable failure that has overwhelmed our criminal justice system and needlessly turned regular, law-abiding folks into felons.

Marijuana, for example, should be decriminalized to allow possession of small amounts and even cultivation of a couple of plants for personal consumption. This would deliver a huge blow to the drug cartels making bank on prohibition.

At the same time, there should be draconian penalties for anyone selling or distributing pot to minors. Just like there are for booze.

Crystal meth, however, falls into a different category, but not only because it can really mess with your mind.

For many people, meth is simply overwhelming. It becomes the dominant focus in life to the point that nothing else matters -- even the children of users and manufacturers.

Unlike growing a few pot plants in the backyard, the manufacture of crystal meth by brain-addled amateur chemists in makeshift labs is an extremely dangerous endeavor. It is a huge problem that is exacting a deadly and expensive toll on our society.

Meth labs are notoriously toxic places because of the chemical stew used to manufacture the drug. Children have been routinely poisoned by adults who are in hyperdrive and oblivious to the noxious chemicals they are conjuring up.

In the past four years, police have busted more than 1,200 meth labs in Arizona. During this same period, more than 362 children have been rescued from such labs. Many have been placed into foster homes. Many of these kids have tested positive for meth.

The state picked up five more kids last week when a police task force raided two homes. In one case, an 18-month-old boy inside a house near 104th Avenue and Camelback Road was found just feet away from a batch of meth that was emitting high levels of extremely dangerous chemicals into the air.

I'm sure cops have only busted a fraction of the number of tweakers cranking out crank. Which means thousands of children are regularly exposed to deadly chemicals released during the manufacture of the drug.

There's no way to restrict the knowledge of how to make meth. Anyone can get a handy recipe for cooking it over the Internet.

The only way to put at least a temporary cork in the meth trade is to reduce the supply of the key ingredient -- pills containing pseudoephedrine.

Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard has vigorously backed the Oklahoma-style bill introduced by moderate Republican Representative Tom O'Halleran of Sedona. At least 29 states are debating similar legislation.

"Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas have all passed the Oklahoma provision in the last couple of weeks," a clearly frustrated Goddard tells me. "Interestingly, there hasn't been a single legislative vote against it in those states. Yet we can't even get a vote on our bill in Arizona."

Pearce and Farnsworth refused to allow O'Halleran's bill to be heard in their respective committees, which would have killed it for this session. Except that O'Halleran resurrected it by inserting language into another bill that is awaiting a hearing in the House Rules Committee.

O'Halleran's language would require any medication (typically cold remedies) containing pseudoephedrine in pill form to be pulled off shelves and sold only by licensed pharmacists. Just pills containing pseudoephedrine can be used to cook meth.

Medications containing pseudoephedrine in gel or liquid forms would be exempt from the law and remain on the shelves of grocery stores and convenience markets.

The legislation would limit the amount of pseudoephedrine pills that could be sold to consumers. But the language would still allow any one customer to buy more pseudoephedrine in a month -- 367 30-milligram tablets -- than I've consumed in my entire life.

Under the current law, consumers can buy virtually unlimited amounts of cold pills.

The legislation would also require purchasers of pseudoephedrine pills to show photo identification and sign a log book that would be available to law enforcement.

Controlling the sale of pseudoephedrine is supported by more than 40 organizations in Arizona representing cops, prosecutors, firefighters, labor unions, children's groups and mental-health advocates. Several religious groups are also behind the legislation -- including the Arizona Interfaith Network.

Yet it continues to languish in the final weeks of this session because ultra-conservative Republicans like Pearce and Farnsworth don't want to impinge on the free market and upset powerful business interests.

Retail drug stores and their legal dope purveyors are vigorously opposing the proposed law, claiming it would put an unnecessary burden on pharmacists. What a crock! I don't see how saying grace over one more drug is going to ruin a pharmacist's day.

The real issue is that drug companies and drugstores don't want to do anything that might reduce profits generated by the sale of pseudoephedrine.

Opponents also claim parents in rural areas with a limited number of pharmacies might be inconvenienced if they are restricted in buying cold remedies to only when pharmacy counters of drugstores are open.

This, of course, is ridiculous. As I said before, who's going to need more than 367 pills per month? Besides, any customer can always go to a 24-hour grocery store and buy pseudoephedrine in liquid form.

Since there is no good reason to oppose the proposed law, the lobbyists for retailers and pharmaceutical companies are resorting to lame anti-gun-control-type sloganeering to deflect attention from the fact that they are selling and manufacturing a product that is easily transformed into a potentially deadly drug.

"They [retailers and drug companies] are not the bad guys," Mike Gardner, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, told the Arizona Capitol Times. "We need to focus on people who are manufacturing, producing and selling methamphetamines. Let's not go overboard just because it's a noble goal."

Consider the source. Of course they're the bad guys, along with the meth cooks.

O'Halleran's legislation would not eliminate meth consumption in Arizona -- 75 percent of the drug entering Arizona comes from super labs in Mexico. But it would put a major crimp in the operation of clandestine meth labs fouling our state.

The legislation is far from going overboard. It's common sense. Not only would it reduce the number of meth labs because a basic ingredient would be harder to come by, Goddard believes it would put a dent in crime related to the skyrocketing addiction to meth in Arizona.

"Meth poisons neighborhoods, it poisons children, and it's closely connected to a long list of other crimes -- including domestic abuse, child neglect, burglary, auto theft, identify theft and counterfeiting," Goddard says.

If anything, the new law would not go far enough in identifying products that can be easily purchased to make meth.

News of the possible state control of pseudoephedrine has meth cooks looking at other options. A surprisingly simple meth synthesis is based on the amino acid phenylalanine, available at health-food stores at a cost of $14 for 100 tablets.

Note to Goddard and O'Halleran: Get some legislation going to address phenylalanine, too.

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