Want to Buy Some Cold Medicine? Your ID, Please

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The increasing popularity of methamphetamines -- also known as ice, crank and crystal meth -- has led many states and pharmacies to restrict the sale of over-the-counter drugs containing substances that can be used to make the illicit drug. Virginia recently curtailed the sale of products containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine -- ingredients commonly found in diet pills and cold and allergy medicines and considered "major precursors" of meth, according to a Virginia Department of Health letter.

In September, Gov. Mark Warner signed an emergency order that restricts the sale and purchase of such products. The District and Maryland do not have similar controls.

The Virginia order limits the purchase of ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-containing products to three individual packages at a time. Any product containing either chemical as its only ingredient must be kept behind a sales counter or inside a locked case; customers must show photo identification before the purchase, and stores must keep a log with the customer's name and purchase information. Drugs that combine either of the ingredients with other substances have less strict regulations.

Shelf Help Some online vendors restrict the purchase of such items to two or three packages at a time. And some large chains have imposed their own national guidelines. Rite Aid, for example, has moved pills or capsules containing pseudoephedrine only or combinations of that substance with other ingredients behind the pharmacy counter, according to company spokeswoman Judy Cook. Liquid combination products remain on regular store shelves because it is more difficult to extract the chemicals necessary to make meth from those products, Cook said. Signs posted near store shelves refer customers to the pharmacy counter for pseudoephedrine-containing products and list their ingredients, so that consumers can compare them with other drugs, according to Cook.

Likewise, CVS has moved its single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products behind pharmacy counters, according to a company news release.

Drug companies say they are doing what they can to help curb meth production. For example, Sudafed's main ingredient is pseudoephedrine, but its maker, Pfizer, recently released a new version of the product, Sudafed PE, that replaces the meth precursor with phenylephrine HCL, "which cannot be used to make methamphetamine" and is sold on regular store shelves, according to the company's Web site.

-- January W. Payne

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