Crackdown aimed at methamphetamine problem clashes with retailers

Friday, April 18th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Pharmacist Greg Mitchell is used to people coming in to his pharmacy and asking for boxes of Sudafed. They don't care about dosages or side effects and they show no signs of a cold.

Mitchell knows they are either helping drug dealers or dealing drugs themselves because the decongestant is a key ingredient in making the highly addictive and illegal stimulant methamphetamine.

``They just want to buy the stuff in quantities and go,'' says Mitchell, who now refuses to sell more than one package at a time from his pharmacy in Lexington, 35 miles east of Kansas City.

Responding to similar scenarios around the state, Missouri lawmakers are proposing some of the country's toughest restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter medicines such as Sudafed. The plan is being hailed in some circles, but business leaders say it goes too far and is the last thing they need in a struggling economy.

Pseudoephedrine, the sole active ingredient in decongestants, can be used in making methamphetamine, a brain-damaging drug that is considered a major problem in parts of the Midwest, Southwest and West. Relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, meth produces a euphoria similar to cocaine.

Missouri and five other states already limit customers to three packages of over-the-counter medicines like Sudafed. But Missouri police seized a nation-high 2,725 clandestine meth labs last year _ nearly one out of every five labs found nationwide _ and officials say they have to consider more severe steps.

The Missouri legislation, which already has passed the House, would require medicines to be placed either behind the counter or within 6 feet of a cashier, or to contain an electronic anti-theft tag. It also would limit each customer to two packages of pseudoephedrine medicines.

Such restrictions would be the toughest in the nation, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines.

``This proposal just goes a little too far,'' said Mike Sargent, a lobbyist for the association. ``It really unfairly targets the chronic allergy sufferer, because that's the consumer who uses this product most often.''

Convenience stores also have objected, saying the proposal would put decongestants in prime counter space now reserved for impulse items such as candy and gum.

``All it's really going to accomplish is overregulating businesses and keeping lawful products out of the hands of lawful consumers,'' said Ronald Leone, executive vice president of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

But some stores and communities already have taken the precautions.

In St. Peters, a suburb of St. Louis, the City Council enacted an ordinance last fall requiring pseudoephedrine medicines to be placed behind the counter or in locked display cases.

The ordinance was in part a reaction to the 2002 death of a grocery store security guard who was smashed between a wall and a pick up truck while chasing two people suspected of stealing several packages of decongestants. Police say the suspects were using the drug for meth.

Since the law took effect Dec. 1, there have been no reported thefts of Sudafed or other pseudoephedrine drugs, police said.

However, the proposed state law would override more restrictive local ordinances like the one in St. Peters.

State legislators ``are making a sham out of this,'' said St. Peters Mayor Tom Brown. ``They're completely undermining the protection we sought for the residents of our communities and the citizens who work in retail stores and sell these products.''

State Rep. Rob Mayer, a Republican from rural southeast Missouri who is sponsoring the legislation, points to places such as St. Peters as the impetus for his idea. Retailers around the state need a uniform law, he says. And in most places, his proposal would be tougher than local ordinances.

The meth problem began several decades ago in California, which still has some of the largest producers and the second-highest number of lab seizures. It has spread east during the past decade or so and has taken root especially in the Midwest, where rural areas provide cover for small, makeshift labs that often produce a stinky, rotten-egg smell.

``Methamphetamine is the No. 1 drug threat to rural America,'' said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which on Tuesday announced the arrests of more than 65 people in the United States and Canada for the illegal importation of pseudoephedrine.

Mitchell, the pharmacist, worries the Missouri legislation could be too sweeping, removing from easy consumer access a product that is used legally by most purchasers. But he's open to the possibility of more restrictions on his pseudoephedrine sales.

``But the bottom line is to cut into this manufacture of meth, and reasonable steps would be OK,'' Mitchell said.