Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When I started opposing the drug war

As I age, I’ve discovered that I am prone to getting sinus infections from the bug du jour, from things growing, or from wherever else, thanks probably to my amazing luck in inheriting bad sinuses from both of my parents. I rarely go to my doctor for treatment, because I don’t believe in running to doctors every time I get a malady, and I certainly don’t believe in taking antibiotics to fix every cold I have.

The only thing that provided real relief for my sinus maladies is pseudoephedrine, found in such products as Sudafed, Mucinex D and Claritin. I’ve tried several alternatives, but products with pseudoephedrine are the only thing that allows me to breathe without causing excessive drying (a problem for those of us who wear contact lenses), or the other effects of antihistamines. Pseudoephedrine has been used for years for those who suffer from allergies and prefer not to take medications that induce drowsiness.

But pseudoephedrine is one of the ingredients of methamphetamine, thus requiring, in the mind of legislators continually running for reelection, bold and decisive action to prevent the ill among us from getting relief without running to the doctor … I mean, to protect us citizens from the scourge of meth-heads invading Wal–Mart for ingredients for their next fix.

2005 Wisconsin Act 14 requires that pseudoephedrine be sold only by pharmacists or employees working under registered pharmacists, and that no one can purchase more than 7.5 grams within a 30-day period without the approval of a physician, dentist, or veterinarian. The pharmacy is required to get photo ID from the buyer, and must record the buyer’s name and address and how much he or she purchased; those records must be kept by the pharmacy for two years. Similar legislation was passed by Congress as part of the renewal of the Patriot Act in 2006.

This law — unanimously passed in the Senate and passed 92–6 in the Assembly, which means there is bipartisan blame — is an inconvenience, to say the least, to the ill, in addition to being a burden on business. In the week I started at Marketplace in 2008, I (1) was barred from purchasing the correct medication because the pharmacy was closed even though the store was open; (2) had to have my wife get it with the usual legal third degree, and (3) stood in line at another pharmacy with other sick people so that I could buy a medication that does not require a prescription. Can’t sleep because you can’t breathe? To quote a former coworker of mine, then it sucks to be you.

I suppose I should be grateful that I can still get pseudoephedrine, since Oregon, where this began, makes pseudoephedrine available only by prescription. As it is, cold medications with pseudoephedrine are now not available in any store that doesn’t have a pharmacy, which includes most grocery stores and convenience stores — a case of government telling businesses what they can and cannot sell to their customers. Some countries are phasing out pseudoephedrine. Drug manufacturers have also removed pseudoephedrine from some cold medications or replacing it with phenylephrine, which does not work.

This is all because meth is the current popular target in the “war on drugs”: “With the help of the press, they're once again frightening the public with tales of a drug so seductive it instantly turns masses of upstanding citizens into addicts who ruin their health, their lives and their families,” wrote the New York Times’ John Tierney in 2005, when state legislatures were falling over each other trying to regulate pseudoephedrine. This is the same non-thinking that has helped turn flying into such a drill-holes-into-your-skull experience, when grandmothers and babies are subject to random searches because they could be terrorists. A 42-year-old man who can barely breathe apparently is a potential meth-head, so let’s inconvenience everyone and invade the privacy of the ill for this supposed wave of the use of the popular drug of the day.

The rationale, as always, is that, to quote Hillary Clinton, “We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.” Or, to quote U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D–Indiana), who sponsored the Senate bill, “Your ordinary, law-abiding citizen isn’t going to object.” Evidently Bayh feels no need to be bothered by constitutional rights.

Or whether pseudoephedrine overregulation will actually work. Just one-fifth of the meth in this country is domestically produced, which means this law will do almost nothing to combat meth use. There is always a way for the motivated druggie to get more drugs — in the case of meth, from Mexico (whose organized crime has gotten quite a shot in the arm, so to speak, from efforts to curb domestic production, according to the New York Times), or by purchasing the ingredients on the Internet.

This, as usual, does nothing to curb the demand for illegal drugs. And, as always, the Law of Unintended Consequences applies: Burglaries in one Iowa county “skyrocketed,” according to the New York Times, after a state crackdown on large meth labs, since what cost $50 to make on a stovetop ended up costing $800 to $1,500 on the street. And the more profit there is in an illegal activity, the more incentive there is to commit crime to support or fund that illegal activity.

Using the same logic, the state should ban alcoholic beverages, since alcohol leads to drunk driving. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have written that, since a Missouri legislator in 2007 proposed similarly heavily regulating a key ingredient in crack cocaine … baking soda.

This is an issue of the trade-offs between societal liberty and safety (which has been happening since before 9/11, but has been more noticeable since 9/11) more than the personal freedom to use the controlled substance of your choice. It is also an issue of the effectiveness of those trade-offs. Infringing on everyone's liberty to not particularly improve safety is not a trade-off we should be making.

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