General Merchandise/HBC

Fighting the Meth Plague

Anti-meth bill would effectively create new drug category between prescription and OTC

WASHINGTON -- Congress is poised to pass a new law to restrict over-the-counter sales of some decongestant pills that have been widely purchased by drug dealers to make methamphetamine, the use of which has gone up more than 150% in the last decade.

A House measure expected to pass in coming weeks would require stores to keep pills such as Sudafedwhich contain pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used in making methin a locked cabinet behind a counter, reported the Chicago Tribune.

Consumers would be limited to 3.6 grams, or about 120 [image-nocss] pills, per day, and 9 grams, or about 300 pills, per month. Purchasers would also have to show identification and sign a logbook.

According to the report, in an attempt to fight the meth plague without overburdening millions of cold sufferers, lawmakers are effectively preparing to create a new category of drugnot prescription, but with many restrictions. These measures would mirror actions already taken by some states.

We need to make it more difficult for criminals to buy these chemicals, but we don't need to make it impossible for law-abiding families to buy cold medicine at the drug store, said Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. The bill before us hopefully strikes a balance between these two competing needs.

Critics say the extra requirements will invade consumers' privacy and may cost them money while doing little to fight meth, since most of it, they say, is made in large factory labs, not the smaller labs that use cold and allergy pills. Requiring law-abiding citizens to give out personal information to buy cold medicine won't reduce the availability of methamphetamine or the harms associated with methamphetamine abuse, Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the administration's policies in the war on drugs, told the newspaper.

Mary Ann Wagner, a senior vice president with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, added that the regulations may increase costs for consumers. We do know that when it's happened in the states, there is a cost in asking clerks to sell the product out of locked cabinets and log the transaction, she told the Tribune. It takes time, and time is money.

But on the whole, she said, retailers understand the need to curb the meth epidemic. Congress is looking at important controls, she said. There are a lot of things in there that will be very helpful to the overall meth problem.

In addition to cold medicines, meth can be made with such other common items as household cleaners and coffee filters. Producing one batch of methabout a poundusually costs less than $100 in materials and can be sold for more than $1,000, said the paper, citing the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. The drug can be snorted, smoked, injected or taken orally. Its rush can be felt in as little as five minutes and can last for up to 12 hours.

According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, more than 12 million Americans age 12 and older said they had used meth at least once in their lifetime, a 156% increase from 1996, said the report. Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) said those numbers do not approach the levels of marijuana use in the United States, but meth is much more dangerous.

Over the past few years, 37 states have passed laws to limit purchases of cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which are decongestants, with laws pending in Ohio and Massachusetts, the report said.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signed a law November 16 requiring pills with those ingredients to be kept behind counters and sold only at pharmacies. Also, only two packages of the pills can be purchased at one time. The law takes effect January 15.

Liquid medicines with pseudoephedrine are not limited because they cannot be used to make meth.

Barton attached an amendment to the bill that ensures the federal legislation would not override state laws that impose tougher restrictions on pseudoephedrine sales.

Officials in Oklahoma, the first state to restrict cold medicine sales, say the state had 80% fewer meth labs after its law took effect, said the report. Oregon passed the toughest law this year by requiring a prescription for the cold remedies. Several states mandate that only pharmacists can sell the medicines, thereby prohibiting sales at some grocery and convenience stores. Retailers Target and Wal-Mart already require cold medicines to be kept behind the counter.

Pfizer Inc., the maker of Sudafed and other cold medicines, has said it plans to alter the formula of up to half of its line, using another drug that is impossible to convert to meth.

On a national level, Biden criticized the current and former Bush administrations, as well as the Clinton administration, for not doing enough to address meth use. This month, the government's drug control policy office began running TV ads in 23 cities to warn viewers about the drug, the report said. Congress has made fighting meth use a priority this year. In the House, 130 members formed an anti-meth caucus as did 35 senators.

Though several House members originally opposed a monthly limit on purchases, Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who proposed a 7.5-gram monthly limit, said they would block any bill without one. The Senate approved their bill in September, and the House bill incorporates similar language.

The law would also toughen penalties for anyone who makes meth where a child resides. About 30% of all meth labs are found where a child lives, according to the Tribune, citing the drug control policy office.

Click here to read the full text of Barton's statement.

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