Step Away from the Cold Medicine

Government's drug war fuels meth problem

Last month, President Bush declared Nov. 30 "National Methamphetamine Awareness Day."

The official statement from the White House implored, "I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate programs and activities."

There's no question that meth is a particularly nasty, vicious drug, both in how it's manufactured and in what it does to the people who use it. I think some skeptics have raised legitimate questions about the accuracy of some of the more hysterical media proclaiming we're in the midst of an "epidemic," but there's no question that the drug is widely available, and that it has some pretty terrible effects on users.

That said, the approaches the government is taking toward attacking meth don't make much sense.

As is often the case with policies aimed at curbing the drug supply, civil liberties were one of the first casualties of the meth hysteria. Several cities and states, for example, quickly made it illegal for businesses to sell customers combinations of ingredients that together, are used to make meth, but that are perfectly legal if bought separately.

Sell bhutane, cold medicine, and matches to the same customer, and an unknowing store clerk could well be arrested. These laws effectively deputized private business to begin policing the shopping habits of their customers – never a good idea.

The idea has led to some horrific outcomes.

In Northwest Georgia, for example, a meth sting ended with the arrest of 49 convenience store clerks for violating the odd new law. The problem is that 47 of the clerks were of Indian decent, and spoke only broken English. When undercover police officers tossed out drug lingo like "cooking up a hit," the clerks had no idea what they were talking about.

More troubling, 23 of the 24 stores targeted were owned by Indians, despite the fact that 75 percent of the convenience stores in the area are owned by whites.

Then there's cold medicine. When law enforcement officials began reporting that meth producers were extracting pseudoephedrine from over-the-counter medication to make methamphetamine, lawmakers in meth-plagued states like Oklahoma and Oregon rushed to make cold medicine more difficult to purchase – putting it behind the counter, requiring consumers to show ID and sign a registry to get it.

Critics like me complained that the laws wouldn't solve the meth problem, they would only invite new suppliers into thse communities – all while inconveniencing consumers. These measures might dry up homemade labs – and admittedly, they did – but they would create a market for purer, more potent meth from Mexico, along with the attendant crime that comes with an international, black market drug trade.

Additionally, the measures hurt generic drug makers, who rely on shelf space next to the brand names as the central part of their marketing strategy.

Nevertheless, more states followed suit. And last year, Congress applied the policy to the entire country, tacking it on to the renewal of the PATRIOT Act.

Sure enough, we now see in early-adopting states like Oklahoma that meth is as prevalent and available as ever. In fact, it's more potent, which means it's creating more addicts. And as predicted, police are tracing the new stuff back to Mexico. So instead of some loser mixing up a personal supply of meth in his basement, the state's now flush with a more toxic for of the drug, pushed by international smugglers.

One not-often reported part of the cold medicine story involves the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. As the media seized on the meth hysteria, critics of the pharmaceutical industry began lambasting the companies for their complicity in the "epidemic." The charge was that out of greed, the companies were refusing to substitute pseudephedrine out of their cold medicines in favor of the substitute ingredient phenylephrine, which is useless in producing meth. (See this criticism from an anti-meth activist on the PBS series Frontline).

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