Drug Policy

Where Have All Our Cold Pills Gone?


For years I've been fascinated (and frustrated) by the intricacies of state liquor laws, which vary widely in their dictates concerning what may be sold, when, by whom, and where. Now, thanks to the methamphetamine "epidemic," I have a new area of picayune regulations to study: state cold medicine laws. Yesterday the Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a report that details every state's restrictions on the sale of medicine containing pseudoephedrine, a cheap and effective decongestant that has the misfortune of also being a methamphetamine precursor. In an effort to curtail meth production by mom-and-pop labs, various state legislatures decided to start treating all pseudoephedrine users like criminals. Naturally, Congress copied the idea.

The federal law, which took full effect on September 30, requires retailers to keep cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter or in a locked cabinet, forces buyers to show ID and sign a logbook, and limits them to no more than 3.6 grams a day and nine grams a month. Some states have no laws of their own, while others have laws that are more lenient or stricter in certain respects. The stricter rules always prevail, of course. In Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, for example, only pharmacies are allowed to sell pseudoephedrine, so if you have a runny nose when CVS is closed, you just have to suck it up.  Some states have especially strict quantity limits. The generous 3.6-gram-per-day federal limit allows people to purchase up to 10 12-packs of a daytime cold remedy similar to the old Vicks Dayquil, for example, while Alabama and Illinois insist that two packages are plenty.

The ONDCP cites declines in meth lab seizures as evidence that the peudoephedrine restrictions are working. But as state officials have acknowledged (and as anyone who was paying attention could have predicted), the decline in local production has not reduced the overall supply of meth, because the vast majority of it comes from Mexican traffickers who are not affected by the Dayquil crackdown and who were happy to pick up any slack. There is no evidence that forcing cold and allergy sufferers to register as suspected meth manufacturers has had any impact on meth consumption. The workplace drug testing data from Quest Diagnostics that the ONDCP includes in its report show no consistent pattern: In some states, amphetamine positives went up after pseudoephedrine was restricted, while in others they went down. Likewise for states that never had restrictions of their own. In Massachusetts, for instance, residents (and even visitors) were allowed to obtain congestion relief whenever they wanted, no questions asked, until the federal law took effect. Yet amphetamine positives in that state fell by 18 percent (from 0.33 percent to 0.27 percent) between 2005 and 2006. Since the Massachusetts approach seemed to work, I say the whole country should adopt it.

[Thanks to the Drug Policy Alliance's Bill Piper for the tip.]