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In some rural areas of the United States, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are flying off the shelves, and not because of a flu epidemic. Since the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has been cracking down on the diversion and misuse of bulk chemicals to produce methamphetamine--commonly known as "speed" or "crank"--illegal drug laboratories have turned to household chemicals and OTC cold remedies for raw materials.
"Methamphetamine is probably the No. 1 drug threat in rural America right now," says DEA public affairs special agent Will Glaspy. "There are multiple ways to manufacture methamphetamine, and there are two key ingredients, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine—and you can get them from OTC cold medicines."
Another meth precursor, phenylpropanolamine, has been taken off the market because of its side effects, but leftover supplies may be available in some areas.
What the meth manufacturers are doing, according to Glaspy, is stripping store shelves of these medications and breaking down the time-release capsules to extract the pseudoephedrine. Methamphetamine can be produced by mini-laboratories using relatively common items like mason jars, coffee filters, hot plates, pressure cookers, pillow cases, plastic tubing, and gasoline cans—much of which can easily fit in a suitcase.
The growing use of the Internet, which provides access to methamphetamine recipes, coupled with increased demand for high-purity product, has resulted in an increase in the number of these mini-labs. In 2001, there were more than 7,700 labs with capacities under 10 pounds, according to DEA estimates.
"Theoretically, there is a one-to-one ratio—one gram of pseudoephederine can make one gram of methamphetamine," says DEA's Glaspy. "In reality, it is more like a 66-percent yield."
A gram of methamphetamine sells anywhere from $80 to $100 on the street, depending on supply.
Curtis Hartin, director of pharmacy for Schnuck Markets, Inc., has had to confront the situation head-on. "It's not a big problem now, but I can see it mushrooming quickly," he says. The St. Louis-based grocery chain operates pharmacies in 93 of its 101 stores. The meth problem is growing at an increased pace in the Midwest.
To address the situation, DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson last year visited more than 30 states as part of his "Meth in America: Not in Our Town" tour. Hutchinson stressed the role of community involvement in reducing the nation's rate of methamphetamine production and addiction.
States also have been taking action. Bills are pending in some that would place sales limits on OTC medicines that can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Eight states have already passed laws limiting the sale of these drugs (see chart).
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In North Dakota, Attorney General Wayne Stenejem instituted the Retailers Meth Watch program, a partnership between the attorney general's Bureau of Criminal Investigation and a number of concerned retailers. The program's goals are to raise awareness of the methamphetamine lab problem, to educate and train retail employees to recognize the signs that individuals are obtaining precursors to methamphetamine, and to limit the accessibility of those precursors.
The bureau arranges training sessions for North Dakota retailers and provides a package that contains decals, posters, signage, suspicious transaction reports, and other training aids.
Stenejem is proposing legislation to bar people from buying more than two packages of cold pills at a time.
Colorado has proposed legislation to increase penalties against methamphetamine. A bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Fritz and Sen. Jim Dyer would make knowingly selling chemicals used to manufacture meth a misdemeanor and impose a fine of $10,000. "Law enforcement has had a record number of meth lab busts in 2002," says Don Hopkins, a spokesman for the governor's office. "All of the ingredients, when purchased separately, are legal, so it is easy to set up clandestine labs. Retail is the best point to stop these producers from gathering the necessary precursors."
"In addition to the state laws, there are local ordinances in the metropolitan St. Louis area that limit specific products that can be sold over the counter," says Schnucks' Hartin. "In some of our stores, all single-source pseudoephedrine has to be behind the counter, under direct supervision of the cashiers. Plus, we set up our cash registers so that no more than three can be sold at once."
While retailers agree that there is a problem, many are against mandatory sales limits, which place the burden of compliance on them, particularly on their cashiers. "Many of the fines and penalties against retailers are quite severe, especially when you are trusting a young clerk to be compliant in these issues," says Mary Ann Wagner, v.p. of pharmacy regulatory affairs at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. "Our position is that we want to work voluntarily to try to address some of these issues."
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In addition to the potential liabilities, some of these laws hinder customer service. "It does create a problem for us," says Hartin. "Our stores are built for self service, so having to move these medicines behind the counter is inconvenient for our customers and limits our access to them. We put up signs at the shelf directing them to the products, but it definitely has had an impact on sales to some degree. Not all of our stores have this problem—it is only a few locations in isolated areas—but all of them in the state are affected."
Retailers are exempt from liability in most cases where they can prove that they acted in good faith to try to comply with the law. "In some cases this may mean positioning security cameras over the cough and cold sections or placing these remedies behind the counter," says Wagner. "But that will not prevent someone from making multiple purchases throughout the day."
And retail sales limits will do nothing to stop those who steal these OTC medicines. Wagner says sales limits may do more harm than good by discouraging business owners from carrying the cough and cold remedies because of the potential liability. In the end, she says, retailers and consumers will be affected, while the meth makers will simply find another way to get their raw materials.
While NACDS opposes mandatory sales limits on meth precursors, Wagner says retailers should exercise vigilance when selling these OTC medicines. "There are a variety of actions that retailers can take, and are taking, as good corporate citizens," she says. "The focus should be on training and procedures in selling these medicines, not mandatory sales limits."
Retailers interested in finding out what they can do can call the DEA Office of Diversion Control at (202) 307-1000.
Contributing editor Joseph Tarnowski can be reached at [email protected].