Perceived motivation makes difference in drug law fight - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Perceived motivation makes difference in drug law fight

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Tom Susman Tom Susman
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Tom Susman is president of TSG Consulting LLC, a public relations and government affairs firm in Charleston. The firm represents many interests, including the West Virginia Behavioral Health Association, which favors requiring prescriptions for most drugs containing pseudoephedrine.

Both sides in this year's battle over a bill affecting the popular cold remedy of pseudoephedrine fought hard for the hearts and minds of West Virginia legislators. Those wanting to change the law to require prescriptions for purchasing many medications containing pseudoephedrine were pitted against manufacturers and sellers of the product who fought the legislation. Not only were they on opposite sides of the issue, but they also defined the issue and communicated their messages in different ways. 

The proponents of the bill defined it as an anti-drug abuse and law enforcement safety issue. The opponents defined it as a consumer rights issue in which people with sinus problems would be denied access to the medications they needed unless they had doctors' prescriptions. The proponents had only grassroots support with no money to spend on their cause, while the industry group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advocating its views. (The campaign against the bill spent more than $129,000, according to a March 5 report filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission, but another report covering further spending is expected to be filed with the commission in coming weeks.)

The target of the legislation was the large number of clandestine methamphetamine labs that operate around West Virginia. Those labs are simple to construct, but dangerous. Many times, they catch on fire. They leave behind residue that pollutes property. The health of people exposed to the fumes or residue can be affected for the rest of their lives. Law enforcement and other first responders have been injured significantly when busting labs or responding to fires or explosions. In many cases, children have been present when law enforcement busted the labs. 

Both sides of the debate admitted that meth labs are a problem, but they disagreed on the solution. Advocates of the prescription-only bill wanted West Virginia to follow the lead of Oregon and Mississippi, which have adopted laws that require prescriptions for the sale of products with pseudoephedrine, and both states have reported significant reductions in the number of clandestine meth labs.

The proponents of the West Virginia legislation ran an "earned media" campaign, meaning they worked with local media to get stories about how meth makers obtain products containing pseudoephedrine by circumventing current restrictions designed to limit access to large amounts of the medication. They tried to communicate the message that changing the law would protect law enforcement officials and others from being hurt by meth labs. One mother testified about how her son, a State Police trooper, became disabled as a result of inhaling fumes during his participation in busting a clandestine meth lab. 

Those proponents emphasized that the bill was written to allow people to have access to certain medications containing pseudoephedrine that are resistant to tampering and being made into meth. Thus, they countered the false assertions from the other side that people without prescriptions would be unable to get access to cold medications they need. 

Their grassroots effort was effective, as the bill came out of the Senate, where leaders recognized the group that was motivated on the issue included prosecutors, county officials, law enforcement and other first responders. 

However, the other side concentrated on the House of Delegates. The bill's opponents defined it as anti-patient legislation and discounted law enforcement's concerns. They effectively used digital advertising, paid advertising and even high-end programs that called people at home to ask if they wanted the Legislature to ban them from having access to cold medicine. When someone said no, that person was then transferred the office of a legislator. While that might have been effective with some legislators, others realized that the people transferred to them had no knowledge about the bill or why they were connected to their legislators. 

But for many people at the Capitol, perception is reality, and in the House, the perception was that opponents of the bill made more noise about it. Many House members, including those in leadership, believed the opponents were the motivated group. It appeared to me, as an observer, to be a faux movement. In other words, the bill's opponents retained several lobbyists and spent a large advertising budget, but they represented a very small constituency. 

In my opinion, the Senate leadership understood the true political dynamics of the issue. Almost all law enforcement officials, as well as most members of the general public, want an end to meth labs. They are the true motivated group and are aware of those who voted against the prescription requirement. Those who see a prescription requirement as an inconvenience, for the most part, are less likely to be motivated in elections either way on the issue.  

Will that make a difference? In most cases, no, but in close elections for House seats, law enforcement officials and others could demonstrate how motivated they are on the issue of mandatory prescriptions for pseudoephedrine products that are not tamper-resistant. That could make a difference in some races.