Drug Policy

Speed Tracers

Sudafed clampdown

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While the federal government keeps an eye out for foreigners with terrorist ties, state governments are beginning to track another set of suspicious characters: Americans with runny noses.

Under plans being considered in Indiana and Oregon, cold and allergy sufferers who want to treat their sniffles with Sudafed or other remedies that contain pseudoephedrine would have to wait in line at the pharmacy counter, show ID, and sign a registry. Oklahoma already has a similar system, which is aimed at stopping black-market chemists who use the drug to make methamphetamine.

Critics who object to the burden such restrictions impose on retailers and consumers note that meth cooks can buy pseudoephedrine pills in states with looser rules. Even national restrictions on retail purchases –an idea endorsed during the presidential campaign by John Edwards, who proposed a limit of two packages a day–would not have much of an impact on the illegal methamphetamine supply. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, some 80 percent of illicit meth comes from large-scale Mexican traffickers, who tend to buy pseudoephedrine in bulk rather than a few packs at a time in pharmacies and grocery stores.

In October, just after Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed retail-level restrictions on pseudoephedrine, The Oregonian ran a five-part series arguing that tracking sales by foreign manufacturers of the chemical is the only way to seriously curtail the methamphetamine trade. The newspaper cited brief declines in methamphetamine purity that followed previous attempts to block access to precursors. Such effects are short-lived, it said, because traffickers find new sources or shift to alternative production methods. After the precursor phenyl-2-propanone was restricted in 1980, traffickers switched to ephedrine; when large quantities of ephedrine became harder to come by in the late '90s, they switched to pseudoephedrine.

The Oregonian did not explore the possibility that this pattern will continue if the U.S. government somehow manages to prevent traffickers from buying pseudoephedrine. In addition to the methods involving ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenyl-2-propanone (which itself can be synthesized in a variety of ways), methamphetamine can be made, for example, with methylamine and the amino acid phenylalanine. "There is no doubt that control of precursors will lead to new or old variant syntheses," says City University of New York pharmacologist John P. Morgan. "If the curtailment of [pseudoephedrine] works, such success will be temporary. Another method of manufacture or other supply will be found."?