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).

Pfizer eventually made the switch, and put out the phenylephrine medication Sudafed PE.

There's just one problem. Phenylephrine doesn't work, and most in the pharmaceutical industry know it. Thanks to the new law and pressure from Congress, millions of customers have been wasting their money on a cold medication that's no more effective than a placebo.

As you might expect, pharmaceutical industry critics have seized on this, too: Rep. Henry Waxman, for example, has asked the FDA to investigate Pfizer for marketing a useless medication. Not wanting to upset Bush administration drug warriors, the FDA has thus far refused.

But don't feel too bad for Pfizer. Given all the abuse the drug companies were taking for what was a blatant, unintended misuse of their product, you could almost forgive them for putting the new product on the shelves, even if they knew it was useless—almost.

What's not forgivable is that according to the Wall Street Journal, once Pfizer's new product was ready to go, the company switched sides, and began to lobby in favor of laws to put pseudoephedrine cold medicine behind the counter. Because the company had a non-pseudoephedrine alternative, the new laws basically cleared the shelves of Pfizer's competitors.

So Americans' access to cold medicine has been restricted, we've embarked on questionable sting operations that likely ensnare innocent people, and the FDA is allowing a useless medication to be sold to U.S. consumers. And to what end? Meth is more available and more potent than it ever was.

Typical drug war folly. This is probably the place to point out that drug war itself is the bad government policy gave us the crude form of methampehtamine that's so popular today in the first place. Think back to alcohol prohibition—alcohol was manufactured, shipped, and stored on the black market, just as illicit drugs are today. Consequently, much of the booze that was available was concentrated, potent, and often toxic.

Deaths and hospitalizations from alcohol poisoning soared. Some who tried concoctions made with methanol literally drank themselves blind.

The similarities between so-called "bathtub gin" and modern meth are inescapable. When alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1932, the home brews dried up (not all of them, but the vast majority of them).

We don't swig basement-brewed booze anymore because it's vile and hazardous – we now have an enormous variety of safe-in-moderation liquors to chose from that are sold openly, and consequently are regulated by market forces. Were conventional amphetamines less strictly controlled, I think you'd see the same thing happen with cruder drugs like meth and crack cocaine.

President Bush wants us to take some time to make ourselves more aware of the meth problem. Fine. But I'd encourage Americans to look beyond what the White House or the Office of National Drug Control Policy tells you. The government's having a hard time solving the meth problem because the government helped create it.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.