- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

At my local drugstore, shelves of cold and allergy medicine have been replaced by merchandise cards hanging from metal rods.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 add my name to 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,” says Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent, the bill’s co-sponsor with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “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 United States comes from large-scale Mexican traffickers, who buy their pseudoephedrine in bulk rather than a couple of boxes at a time from CVS. Restricting retail access to pseudoephedrine may shift production from small local labs and toward the big-time meth makers who already account for most of the supply, but it’s unlikely to affect consumption noticeably.

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

Given this, putting your favorite decongestant behind the pharmacist’s counter is mainly symbolic, intended to show politicians like Mr. Talent and Mrs. 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 they force to endure the inconvenience and indignity of registering as pseudoephedrine users or the ones who have to go without relief if afflicted when a pharmacist is not available.

Hard as this collateral damage is to justify, it pales next 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 they sold pseudoephedrine and other supplies to informants posing as meth cooks.

The supplies, including matches, charcoal, antifreeze, coffee filters, aluminum foil, and cat litter, were all perfectly legal. The charges, carrying penalties of up to 25 years in prison as well as fines and asset forfeiture, are based on the doubtful premise the defendants knew or should have known what the fake customers pretended 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 readily manufactured using innocuous everyday products, the government created the illicit labs it is 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 nationally syndicated columnist.

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