Speed Bumps at the Pharmacy

How someone else's meth habit leaves you with a runny nose


At my local drugstore, shelves of cold and allergy medicine have been replaced by merchandise cards hanging from metal rods. If I want to buy one of these remedies, I have to take the corresponding card to the pharmacist's counter, wait in line, show my ID, and sign a register.

This procedure, required by an "emergency order" from Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, is supposed to prevent me from using the pseudoephedrine in products such as Sudafed and Dayquil to cook up a batch of methamphetamine in my garage. If you're not lucky enough to live in a state with similar restrictions, fear not: Under the Combat Meth Act, which Congress is expected to pass soon, you too can be treated like a criminal the next time you have nasal congestion, thereby doing your part to help achieve a drug-free society.

"This legislation is a dagger at the heart of meth manufacturing in America," claims Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who co-sponsored the meth bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.). "If you can't get pseudoephedrine, you can't make meth."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, some 80 percent of the illicit meth consumed in the U.S. comes from large-scale Mexican traffickers, who buy their pseudoephedrine in bulk rather than a couple boxes at a time from CVS. Restricting retail access to pseudoephedrine may shift production away from small local labs and toward the big-time meth makers who already account for most of the supply, but it's not likely to have a noticeable effect on consumption.

Nor is it true that you need pseudoephedrine to make methamphetamine. Other methods use precursors such as ephedrine, methylamine, phenylalanine, and phenyl-2-propanone (which itself can be synthesized in a variety of ways). So even if the government somehow managed to cut off all access to pseudoephedrine—which making you stand in line at the pharmacy for cold medicine assuredly will not do—the black market would adjust.

Given this reality, putting your favorite decongestant behind the pharmacist's counter is mainly a symbolic act, intended to show that politicians like Jim Talent and Dianne Feinstein care deeply about stopping people from getting high on speed. Evidently they don't care quite so much about the cold and allergy sufferers whom they are forcing to endure the inconvenience and indignity of registering as pseudoephedrine users, or the ones who will have to go without relief if they happen to be afflicted when a pharmacist is not available.

Hard as this collateral damage is to justify, it pales in comparison to that suffered by other innocent victims of the government's war on methamphetamine. Last summer, for instance, state and federal agents arrested 49 convenience store clerks and owners in Georgia on charges that they sold pseudoephedrine and other supplies to informants posing as meth cooks.

The supplies, including matches, charcoal, anti-freeze, coffee filters, aluminum foil, and cat litter, were all perfectly legal. The charges, which carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison as well as fines and asset forfeiture, are based on the doubtful premise that the defendants knew or should have known what the fake customers were pretending to be planning.

All but a few of the defendants are Indian immigrants, and many have a weak grasp of ordinary English, let alone the slang of black-market meth manufacturers. Several said they assumed the guy who bought matches and camping fuel, saying he needed to "finish up a cook," was having a barbecue.

This is the logic of the war on drugs. By criminalizing possession of a substance that is readily manufactured using innocuous everyday products, the government created the illicit labs it is now trying to shut down by criminalizing the sale of those innocuous everyday products. Perhaps recognizing that the lives of most Americans have not been affected by the "meth epidemic," prohibitionists are determined to spread the pain around.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. Sullum's weekly column is distributed by Creators Syndicate. If you'd like to see it in your local newspaper, please e-mail or call the editorial page editor today.