In October, CVS Pharmacy agreed to a $75 million fine for its purported contributions to the illicit methamphetamine trade. It is the largest civil penalty ever assessed for a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. “This case shows what happens when companies fail to follow their ethical and legal responsibilities,” U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. told the Associated Press.
Sounds damning. You’d think CVS employees were shipping meth in company trucks or cooking the stuff up in the drugstore chain’s bathrooms. In fact, CVS’s offense was being insufficiently suspicious of its customers when they purchased cold or allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient also used to make meth.
The case against CVS reflects the federal government’s increasing reliance on private actors to enforce America’s vice laws. It also demonstrates the feds’ eagerness to prosecute companies that don’t participate with sufficient enthusiasm. In 2005’s Operation Meth Merchant, for example, federal officials arrested 49 convenience store clerks in Georgia for selling legal meth ingredients to undercover agents posing as customers. The clerks were charged with felonies for not refusing the sales after agents used meth slang in the store. Forty-five of the 49 arrestees were Indian immigrants who spoke little English.
As for CVS, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shana Mintz concedes the company didn’t intend to break any laws. But apparently that doesn’t matter. “Rather than choosing to overcomply like their competitors did,” Mintz told the Associated Press, “they knowingly undercomplied with the law.”