Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Curb Meth, a Crackdown on Cold Medicines ; States Try to Limit Access to a Key Meth Ingredient, but Some Drug Companies and Consumer Groups Oppose the Move

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Curb Meth, a Crackdown on Cold Medicines ; States Try to Limit Access to a Key Meth Ingredient, but Some Drug Companies and Consumer Groups Oppose the Move

Article excerpt

For years David Niles, pharmacy manager at Sack-N-Save, has battled the nation's methamphetamine addiction - one pill at a time.

As fast as he can restock the shelves of his Gainesville, Texas, pharmacy with Sudafed and other cold pills, they're gone - stuffed under shirts and into backpacks on their way to meth labs.

So Mr. Niles moved the pills from Sack-N-Save's front door to cut down on theft. Then in April, when Oklahoma - just a few miles away - severely restricted the sale of cold medicine, business at his own shop soared. Now he's pulled the drugs from his shelves altogether: No one can access the pills without going through him.

"It's self defense," he says. "Meth labs have been a real problem in this part of the country."

His crusade is part of a growing crackdown on one of America's major drug problems.

Since Oklahoma became the first state to classify the popular cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine as Schedule V drugs (those with narcotic ingredients), meth cookers have been forced to leave the state in search of this key ingredient.

The apparent success has led a slew of states - especially those that share a border with Oklahoma - to consider more drastic measures. Even at the federal level, a Senate bill introduced earlier this month would make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance.

The measures are controversial. Drug-makers and drug stores say they are being unfairly targeted and argue that pharmacists are being turned into policemen who limit access to legitimate customers, while retailers confront a growing list of confusing laws.

But lawmakers are increasingly frustrated - and desperate - as they watch their budgets get funneled into the epidemic. Already, 28 states have restricted pseudoephedrine sales. In this legislative session at least 19 have introduced new or stricter measures on the cold tablets, seven of which would require pharmacists to make the sale.

The drug first appeared among California biker gangs in the 1950s, but didn't start to move eastward until the 1990s.

"States on the West Coast have been dealing with the methamphetamine problem for quite a long time," says Blake Harrison, a criminal-justice policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But now we are seeing it spread to the East Coast, and that has prompted many other states to address the problem."

Almost 80 percent of meth is still made in California's Central Valley or smuggled in from other countries. But homemade labs in neighborhoods, farms, and forests are overwhelming local law- enforcement agencies. Not only are they dangerous to dismantle - often resulting in toxic spills - but meth users can be extremely violent.

That's what spurred Oklahoma to act. Since 1999, three state troopers have been killed in meth-related incidents, and lab seizures rose from 10 in 1994 to 1,233 in 2003. …

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