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WAR ON DRUGS States look at ways to cut off meth supply



Published: Wed, January 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



LOS ANGELES TIMES

ST. LOUIS -- Over-the-counter cold pills might be removed from store shelves across much of the Southwest and Midwest this year as officials struggle to crack down on methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that can be brewed from decongestants and other common household items.

At least 20 states are considering tight restrictions on access to Sudafed, NyQuil, Claritin-D, Tylenol Flu and hundreds of other cold, allergy and sinus remedies that contain pseudoephedrine.

Details vary, but in many states only pharmacists or their assistants would be allowed to dispense the medicines. Customers would have to show identification -- and even enter their addresses in a law enforcement database. Some states also might restrict purchases to as few as two to three boxes a month.

In most cases, the controls would apply only to pseudoephedrine tablets; gel caps and liquid formulas are generally exempt because it's much harder to convert them to illegal drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes the proposed restrictions, arguing that they would inconvenience legitimate customers, especially in rural areas, where the nearest pharmacy might be 40 miles away and open only on weekdays. The trade association representing chain drugstores also plans to lobby against the legislative action. So do some convenience store owners.

Despite this opposition, lawmakers in state after state say they are confident that the measures will pass with broad bipartisan support. Two Republican and two Democratic governors have promised to press for the restrictions.

"I absolutely have high hopes we'll get it done," said Minnesota state Sen. Julie Rosen.

In southwest Iowa, Sheriff Terry Baxter needs more than hope.

"We have to do something," Baxter said. "Meth is just taking over."

Illegal stimulant

Also called "crank," "crystal," "speed" and "ice," methamphetamine comes in many forms: It can look like rock salt or chalk dust. It can be amber, white or translucent, even red or brown. Users inject, snort, smoke or swallow it.

The stimulant produces an exhilarating rush. Within a few hours, though, it wears off, inducing deep depression and paranoia, leaving users frantic for another hit. Addicts often ride speed highs for days, not pausing to sleep or eat.

Meth can cost as much as powder cocaine; prices nationally range from $80 to $250 for a bag of just .06 ounce, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But it's also a do-it-yourself drug, easy to make in a bathtub from one of more than 100 recipes passed from addict to addict.

It's popular among women -- who sometimes try it because they've heard it will keep them thin -- and among young adults. A federal survey in 2003 found that half of recent users were younger than 18.

As much as 80 percent of the methamphetamine available in the United States comes from organized crime rings cooking up huge quantities of it in California or across the border in Mexico. Restrictions on Sudafed sales would do little to stop them.

Deadly do-it-yourself

The controls are aimed, instead, at meth brewed in small, makeshift labs, primarily in the Midwest.

Using chemicals extracted from decongestants, rubbing alcohol, starter fluid, drain cleaner, lithium batteries, matches and paint thinner, the drug routinely is made in cornfields and hotel rooms, in roadside ditches, in suburban estates and in national forests.

The addicts who run the labs are not big-time drug dealers. They make just enough to keep themselves and maybe a few friends high.

Even so, they've left a devastating trail.

Rural states such as Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma are pocked with thousands -- some officials say tens of thousands -- of illegal labs.

Explosions are common. The gases emitted in the cooking process are so toxic that the fumes can corrode metal -- and scar lungs.

The waste produced is so hazardous that clean-up crews must wear full protective suits.

Restrictions dodged

Several states have tried to shut down labs by restricting how many decongestants a shopper can buy in any one purchase. (In California, the limit is three packages, or nine grams of pseudoephedrine.) Some chain stores, including Wal-Mart, voluntarily limit transactions.

But meth cooks can easily -- and legally -- evade such restrictions by driving from store to store to store to pick up the thousands of pills they need to make a few ounces of stimulant. One suspect arrested in southwest Missouri carried a hand-drawn map of every store in the area that sold cold pills.

A few states considered tougher restrictions on pseudoephedrine last year. Just one -- Oklahoma -- adopted them.




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