Friday, January 28, 2005

When Sudafed is Outlawed, only Outlaws will take Sudafed

Joshua Claybourn at "In the Agora" pointed out this story today. It seems that there are a dozen senators (the story linked focuses on Evan Bayh) co-sponsoring a bill that would make certain over the counter cold and flu medicines more difficult to obtain. Under this law, any non-prescription medication that contains pseudoephedrine would be sold only at pharmacies, kept behind the counter, and would require proper ID to obtain. Customers would be required to sign for the medication, and would be limited in the amount they could purchase.

The purpose of this restrictive bill is to shut down meth labs. Pseudoephedrine is apparently a main ingredient in meth.

Bayh said the federal measure was modeled after an Oklahoma law, which authorities there say has helped drive down meth lab seizures more than 80 percent. Similar legislation is pending in the Indiana General Assembly.

. . .

Opponents, including pharmacy groups, argue such a law would create barriers for regular customers in need of cold medication and take pharmacists away from more important responsibilities.

Bayh, however, said he did not believe the extra monitoring of pseudoephedrine would be burdensome when compared the problems meth was causing in many communities.

"Your ordinary, law-abiding citizen isn't going to object," he said.

Geez, I hate that kind of reasoning.

"We're going to search all your homes. If you've got nothing to hide, you won't object."

"We're going to test you all for drug use. If you don't use drugs, why would you put up a fuss?"

And even if this bill fails at the national level, here in Wisconsin State Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) is pushing for a similar law at the state level.

The northern lawmaker said he is working with leaders in the law enforcement community and drug abuse prevention experts to create a comprehensive legislative package that will help reduce the amount of over-the-counter medicines that can be purchased at one time.

Dear Legislators: When I or someone in my household has a cold, I want to be able to run to the nearest store -- perhaps the gas station on the corner -- to obtain the necessary meds. You would rather force me to drive many miles to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy, where I must sign papers to prove that I legitimately need these meds. And then you will only allow me to purchase a small amount, ensuring that I will have to make a return trip in a day or two. Perhaps you won't even let me purchase more than a small amount each week.

Perhaps we will simply stay home and die from the flu, and our surviving family members can sue the state for making common cold and flu medication more difficult to obtain.

Here in the Chippewa Valley we've recently had two rather shocking incidents related to meth use, which woke up a lot of people to the seriousness of the issue. But this solution is wrong-headed. Jacob Sullum at Reason has a reasoned response, noting that this kind of legislation has been shown to be ineffective.

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.”

(Are we sure there isn't some pharmacists lobbying group pushing for sole control of cold and flu meds in order to boost revenue?)


At 11:56 AM, Blogger Mark Sides said...

Typical regulatory state thinking: Punish the innocent to try to get at the guilty. In some ways, creeping over-regulation is scarier than Nazi or Communist overthrows. At least there, you know where the enemy is and when the enemy is acting. Here, it sneaks up on you until you're so covered in regulation that you don't know which way to turn.

See you (virtually) February 1!

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, I agree. Sounds like it could be a clause in the Patriot Act.


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