Early on the morning of July 30, Sally Harpold and her husband were awakened by police banging on the door of their home in Parke County, Indiana. The officers hauled Harpold away in handcuffs, charging the grandmother with a Class C misdemeanor. Her mug shot appeared on the front page of the local paper, under the headline "17 Arrested in Drug Sweep." Her crime: buying a box of Zyrtec-D allergy medicine for her husband, then buying a box of Mucinex-D decongestant for her daughter at another pharmacy less than a week later.
That second transaction put Harpold six-tenths of a gram over Indiana's three-gram-per-week limit for purchases of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that happens to be a methamphetamine precursor. Such restrictions, aimed at suppressing meth production and enforced by requiring customers to request heretofore off-the-rack medications from a pharmacist and sign a log, have proliferated across the country in recent years. In 2006 a federal version took effect, albeit with limits a little more generous than Indiana's: up to 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine a day and nine grams a month.
There is little evidence that the pseudoephedrine crackdown has reduced meth use, which (according to the federal government's survey data) has been falling since the late '90s. But that doesn't mean it hasn't had an impact. Pseudoephedrine limits have helped shift meth production from local mom-and-pop labs to the large-scale Mexican traffickers who already dominated the business, and they have driven explosive innovation in manufacturing techniques.
The Associated Press reports that a newly popular "shake and bake" meth-making method requires much less pseudoephedrine, uses easily available household chemicals, and can be executed inside a two-liter plastic bottle. According to Marion County, Alabama, Sheriff Kevin Williams, "It simplified the process so much that everybody's making their own dope."
The downside: While "every meth recipe is dangerous," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, "in this one, if you don't shake it just right, you can build up too much pressure, and the container can pop." When the old-style labs had fires, he added, "it was usually on a stove in a back room or garage and people would just run, but when these things pop, you see more extreme burns because they are holding it. There are more fires and more burns because of the close proximity, whether it's on a couch or driving down the road."