Every day, a stream of haggard customers would show up at Mark Dodson's drugstore in Altus, Okla. (pop. 23,000), just north of the Texas border. And every day Dodson would find dozens of empty cold-medicine boxes--the pills shoplifted--stuffed behind other products on the shelves or abandoned in grocery carts. Sometimes the 38-year-old pharmacist suspected that a buyer was using sniffle pills to manufacture methamphetamine, a dangerous drug, and he refused a sale. But usually, he says, "I had to give people the benefit of the doubt."
No longer. Oklahoma last April became the first state to classify such common cold remedies as Sudafed and Claritin-D as Schedule V narcotics, forbidding sales in stores other than pharmacies, ordering the pills placed behind counters, limiting the amount sold per customer and requiring purchasers to show a photo ID and sign a register. The medicines contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that works by shrinking blood vessels in the nose, lungs and other mucous membranes. Drug traffickers long ago discovered they could dissolve the pills in common chemicals and heat the mixture until the liquid evaporates and a powerful stimulant powder--known as meth, crank, crystal or ice--remains. As a result, 23 other states are considering similar legislation, and last week a federal bill, modeled on Oklahoma's statute, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by a group of bipartisan lawmakers from across the country, including states in which hospital admission rates for meth addiction have soared in the past 10 years; in Arkansas, that rate has increased 17-fold since 1992.
The crackdown on cold pills is the latest example of what pharmacists say is an attempt to turn them into police officers, and many don't like it. The Minnesota Pharmacists Association is trying to head off a bill limiting sales of pseudoephedrine to adults over the age of 18. The legislation, says the group's CEO, Julie Johnson, would require more than 300 products containing pseudoephedrine to be kept behind counters. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores warns that customers would have fewer choices of brands and longer waits in line, while big retailers would have to contend with a patchwork of confusing state laws. That is already true: at least 11 states have enacted some restraints. Meanwhile, some retailers are voluntarily restricting sales. Wal-Mart, for instance, limits customers to three boxes of products containing pseudoephedrine.
But the momentum is building for stricter laws because police officers across rural America are fed up with the time, money and danger involved in dismantling meth labs hidden in remote farms and forests. Originally popular with motorcycle gangs and long-haul truckers, the drug--which is smoked, snorted or injected--can be cooked up in a few hours from a combination of over-the-counter drugs, rubbing alcohol, fertilizers and other chemicals with recipes found on the Internet. Although an estimated three-quarters of the meth used in the U.S. is smuggled in by Mexican gangs, more than 8,500 domestic labs were raided last year. The drug, when abused, can lead to paranoia and violent outbursts. Three Oklahoma state troopers have been killed in meth-related cases since 1999.