A Remedy for the Meth Epidemic

By Dianne Feinstein and Jim Talent
Saturday, April 30, 2005

The fight against methamphetamines received a major boost recently when four of the United States' largest food and drug retailers decided to put certain cold medicines behind the pharmacy counter.

We applaud the recent moves by Target, Wal-Mart, Albertson's, Longs Drugs and Rite Aid to make medicines containing pseudoephedrine less accessible. But they will not by themselves shut down the thousands of meth labs that have sprung up across the country. That's why it is critical that all retailers be required to limit access to cold medicines containing this ingredient.

Why is this so important? Because pseudoephedrine -- the active ingredient in most cold medicines -- is being used to brew up batches of meth in basements, cars and motel rooms across the country. The fact that it's relatively easy to make meth is one of the reasons the drug has migrated from California and the West to the rest of the nation.

Meth is cheap, accessible and potent. It can be purchased for as little as $20 a dose. Its effects on users range from the bizarre to the homicidal. And cooking meth is often as simple as a trip to the local store.

Those seeking to make it have up to this point been free to purchase all the pseudoephedrine they need, easily and without scrutiny. One of our staff members recently went to a local grocery store to purchase a large quantity of cold medicine for use in a news conference. He bought 27 boxes of cold medicine, and no one batted an eye.

This scene is being repeated in communities throughout the United States. Meth cooks will buy out a store's supply of cold medicine. They will go from store to store to store and buy as much of it as they can afford. Then they go home, extract the pseudoephedrine, mix it with battery acid and other poisons, and cook up a batch of meth for sale or for their personal use.

So what can we do to solve this problem?

The answer is clear: Follow the Oklahoma model. Oklahoma last year passed legislation requiring that cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine be moved behind the pharmacy counter. The result: an 80 percent drop in the number of meth labs seized. This law works. We should copy it.

Twelve states have done just that. Tennessee and Iowa, for example, have passed new laws in the past few months mandating that cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine be put behind the counter. Another 30 states are considering similar legislation.

But new state laws and the voluntary actions of retailers are not enough. That's why we're working together to make the Oklahoma law national. Our legislation would:

· Move cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter.

· Limit the amount one person can buy to 9 grams a month -- that's the equivalent of 300 30-milligram pills.

· Require purchasers to show identification and to sign for cold medication.

These are not overly burdensome provisions. Anyone who legitimately wants cold medicine will be able to buy more than enough to meet his or her needs. But it will put up barriers to stop meth cooks. It will deter them from making large quantities of meth. And it will increase their risk of being caught by the authorities.

Will this completely stop meth? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Those who seek to use meth will undoubtedly find ways to continue to acquire the drug. But it will shut down many of the labs operating across the nation, potentially increasing the street price for meth and allowing law enforcement to focus on other aspects of the problem.

There is no question that this nation needs a far-reaching strategy on meth. We need to reduce demand for this drug by educating Americans about its dangers. We need to find ways to break meth addiction. And we need more funding for enforcement and prosecution, especially in high-activity areas. But what has become clear is that a comprehensive effort to move cold medicine behind the counter must be an integral part of any effort to bring this epidemic under control.

Dianne Feinstein is a Democratic senator from California. Jim Talent is a Republican senator from Missouri.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company