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The War on Users of Cold, Allergy Drugs

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

You know the war on drugs has gone too far when politicians keep ratcheting up restrictions on cold and allergy medications in order to prevent kitchen drug labs from buying pills and converting them into methamphetamine.

In 2005, Congress passed a law requiring consumers to show a driver's license or other ID in order to purchase Sudafed and 14 other over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. The buyer must register in a logbook.

Right after the law passed, the amount of methamphetamine that the Drug Enforcement Administration seized dropped, but then it started to rise. The drug trade has proved to be a crafty, adaptable foe. "Mom and pop" meth labs started "smurfing" -- sending people to multiple retailers to buy pills.

Also, users figured out how to "shake and bake" small quantities of meth in 2-liter jugs. Toxic meth labs found a new home -- in cars.

Worse, Mexican cartels moved in to fill the vacuum. A 2010 U.N. drug report said there had been a sharp decline in the number of small and medium-sized meth labs in the United States, "although production loss was offset by increasing large-scale manufacture in neighboring Mexico."

The report tracked changes in the street price of methamphetamine. Prices spiked for six to nine months after changes in the law, then "manufacturers were able to retool operations and find new sources of chemicals" and the prices dropped back to where they had been.

Enter state lawmakers. Oregon and Mississippi have already passed laws requiring law-abiding citizens to get prescriptions for what had been over-the-counter medications. Lawmakers in other states -- including California, Alabama and Colorado -- are considering similar bills.

I understand that methamphetamine addiction is an ugly creature that destroys families, eats through bodies and endangers children. But if the pharmacy registry and 250-pill per month quantity limit mainly served to drive the trade to Mexico, then the prescription requirement will not stop the trade either.

Meanwhile, it surely would drive up health costs by making other people -- law-abiding people -- see a doctor when they have a bad cold.

I remember talking to the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2005 before the Combat Methamphetamine Act, which she co-sponsored, passed. A spokesman assured me, "Companies sell cold medications in Europe without pseudoephedrine, and the same could be true here."

What happened is: A lot of people -- like me -- with colds and allergies started to wonder why the stuff they were buying didn't work as well as it used to. Many don't know they can get something that works better if they show the pharmacist their driver's license.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association warned that if half of Americans who use pseudoephedrine drugs had to visit a doctor to get a prescription, it would cost $750 million per year. Meth addicts won't be burdened by any new laws. It's the law-abiding people who will pay.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the anti-drug war Drug Policy Alliance, asked, "Who suffers?"

I'll answer. Factor in the unnecessary health care costs, the long-term effects on supply and price, and the answer is: not meth addicts.

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