Opinion: Daily Journal

Try Not To Catch Cold in N.C., Please

Last week brought North Carolinians the intriguing news that, in the Associated Press’ headline, “N.C. lawmakers to consider tougher laws on meth.” That’s intriguing because this year ushered in new, tougher laws on meth, and they were supposedly having great effect. What would the new, tougher-than-tough laws do?

The AP reported (with emphasis added):

A House committee is meeting Wednesday to discuss recommendations for the 2013 legislative session, which begins Jan. 30. Among the possibilities is requiring a prescription for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making meth.

Oh. Oh! So really, the lawmakers plan to consider tougher laws on cold medicine. Just like last year’s tougher laws on cold medicine. Take that, small group of meth-heads. Tough luck, vast majority of cold and allergy sufferers. If you want to buy an over-the-counter cold medicine, you’re going to have to see a doctor first. What do you mean, that defeats the whole point of OTC medicines?

The unfortunate reality is that methamphetamine, as destructive as it is, is not only highly addictive, but also relatively easy to manufacture. Pseudoephedrine is a “key ingredient” in making meth, but can the rotting addicts make meth without it? Yes — and that’s why “fighting meth” by putting cold sufferers (i.e., pretty much everyone in society in any given year) through the wringer is poor public policy.

The key ingredient to making meth is … dependent upon the policies in effect. A quick summary on that point:

  • Originally meth makers used phenyl-2-propanone, which was restricted in the 1980s
  • Next they moved over to ephedrine, until the late ’90s, when large quantities were restricted
  • So the next move was to pseudoephedrine, and regulators have reacted accordingly, trying to restrict access to pseudoephedrine (anyone remember John Edwards’ campaign to limit access to over-the-counter cold medicine?)
  • Now meth-makers are adopting new methods that require very small amounts of pseudoephedrine and personal “laboratories” so small they can fit (at great personal risk, of course) on the passenger seat of a car, in a purse, or even in some idiot’s pants
  • They can also switch to methylamine and the amino acid phenylalanine, and there was recently a curious case of a woman arrested in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart mixing meth right there on a store shelf using, among other things, sulfuric acid, drain cleaner, and lithium, but not pseudoephedrine
  • In sum, the meth addicts keep on — addiction being what addiction is — finding ways to feed their addiction. A negative side effect of the tougher laws is that the new ways are increasingly dangerous to users and nonusers alike.

    The heavy traffickers aren’t stopped by laws preventing them from stocking up at the corner drug store. They just get more supplies from Mexican narcotics labs.

    Cold sufferers? They are the ones jumping through hoops. Already they’re having to purchase formerly effective cold medicines that have replaced pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine, whose effectiveness in treating cold and allergy symptoms rivals that of ye aulde sugar pille. Now, apparently, legislators are considering forcing them — all of us, really — to go to the doctor (at cost of time and money) to get a prescription for formerly OTC medication.

    But cheer up, Carolina cold sufferer. Have you considered what all that means? The next time you sneeze, you could save the money you might have spent on a state-sanctioned, glorified placebo. You could just as effectively treat your cold with the thought that the same laws making you unable to purchase an effective cold treatment hassle-free are enriching some drug lord south of the border. Bless you!

    Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.