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Meth Labs, Congress: Thanks for Nothing

I swear, there will never be an end to topics for this column, so long as governments at all levels continue to behave in the ways in which they do.

“War” is a fact of life in governments and their attendant bureaucracies. They declare “war” on everything – terrorism, drugs, crime, smoking, trans fats, you name it. (And it’s not limited to government. The major music labels have been declaring war against their own customers for some time now.)

Well, today, a new war has been declared. It began with a handful of states, but it now appears that the Feds want to get into the act. Congress is preparing to declare war against – (insert ominous music here) – over-the-counter cold medicines.

A Dec. 10th Wired article outlines a hidden passage in the hotly-debated Patriot Act extension bill, the compromise version of which having just got out of the Senate committee. That passage would severely limit the distribution of any over-the-counter cold medication containing pseudoephedrine, including Claritin-D and the ever-popular Sudafed.

Why attack a common, effective sinus remedy that has kept me functional during cold/flu season for over 30 years? Because apparently, the active ingredient is also a necessary ingredient in the making of methamphetamine. So, in typical Congressional thinking, the idea is, if you limit the distribution of this key ingredient, it follows that you limit the proliferation of meth labs. Wrong and wrong.

Making Sudafed difficult to obtain will have the same result as making every other “illegal” drug difficult to obtain (read: not). Instead of buying large quantities of Sudafed at Walgreen’s, meth lab chemists will now import the raw chemical in cans, boxes, or drums, from Latin America or Asia. So while total numbers of meth labs may temporarily decrease in the short run, thus allowing lawmakers to declare victory, it’s really only the “mom and pop” shops that will close down. The remaining, more “professional” labs, run by larger criminal organizations able to implement economies of scale, will be able to place their product in greater quantity at lower cost than ever before. Thus overall meth supply will continue to keep pace with demand. These new laws change nothing at the street level, i.e., fewer labs, more meth.

Meanwhile, workers with miserable colds, balking at having to sign a logbook for their favorite sinus remedy at an inflated price (or even be forced to get a doctor’s prescription), unfazed by pseudoephedrine “replacement” products that don’t work as well, will opt instead to call in sick – thus there may be a long-term effect on GDP during cold/flu/allergy seasons.

An admission: Back in the 80’s, I was a “drug smuggler” of sorts. I lived in Seattle, and several times a year I enjoyed taking extended-weekend trips to Vancouver or Victoria, BC. I got to know the proprietors of a B&B in the area. They loved Sudafed, but hated having to get a doc’s ‘script for it, as has always been the rule in Canada. On the other hand, aspirin with codeine, a product unavailable except by prescription in the US, was over-the-counter in Canada. Hence an informal non-cash trade arrangement was made, in the pure spirit of better health-care choices for both parties. This is an example of the absurdity of all State attempts at control of drugs of any kind, and the creativity of individuals to work around them. Expect sinus cold sufferers to begin making similar arrangements in Mexico shortly, or simply stocking up on large quantities of the medication before the new laws take effect.

So, thanks for nothing, all you meth-lab proprietors. Not only do you distribute addictive poison, you have been lazy in so doing by obtaining your key ingredients at drug stores, thus raising red flags with those who pretend to “govern” us. You deserve to go out of business, regardless of its legality.

Governments at the state and federal levels, thanks for nothing to you, as well, for once again, you’ve created a “solution” that won’t work to a “problem” you’ve blown out of proportion to its actual impact on our lives. Drug use may be the scourge of some communities, admittedly, but libertarians maintain (insist, really) that it should be treated as a public health problem, as opposed to a criminal problem.

Ha-choo. Sniffle. Snort.

December 13, 2005