By Sean Rice
Drug abusers are making it difficult for the “average Joe” to buy over-the-counter cold medicines.
Area chain stores CVS, Wal-Mart and Kmart all have some type of restriction in place to prevent customers from buying multiple cold and asthma medications such as Sudafed or Dimetapp.
The reason: ephedrine — a drug found in most cold pills and liquids. It is a key ingredient used to manufacture the illegal drug methamphetamine.
“We limit three (cold remedy items) per customer per day,” said Peter Owsley, manager of Wal-Mart in Celina. “Anything that has (ephedrine) in it will prompt the cashier to check for multiple purchases when scanned.”
Owsley said the move was a corporate decision made about a year ago.
Well-known products such as Sudafed, Actifed, Dimetapp Extentabs and other non-prescription decongestants contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Ephedrine is a bronchial dilator found in many asthma medications; pseudoephedrine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a nasal decongestant.
Other household-type items used to make “meth” are lye, drain cleaners, rubbing alcohol and battery acid — but none are monitored as closely for sale as cold medicines, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Makers of meth who do their cooking in makeshift labs have become the number one target of law enforcement officers across the nation, officials say. The labs emit a distinctive odor, are highly explosive and many times are operated out of family homes such as the one discovered in the Wabash area by local sheriff’s deputies in November 2003.
“Sudafed was found in that meth lab,” said Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey, although he could not give the quantity discovered because the scene was cleaned up by federal drug enforcement officers. “The report said some of it (Sudafed) was bought, some of it was stolen.”
Grey said many people don’t understand the connection between drugs like Sudafed and the making of meth. The sheriff’s office has received at least one call from a store owner asking why someone would buy so much cold medicine at one time, he said. “We’d really like people to call us if they have suspicions,” he said. “This is an issue we’re going to have to deal with from now on.”
It takes thousands of pills containing the targeted drugs to make a little more than a kilo of meth, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). DEA statistics show that nearly 270 meth labs were discovered by law enforcement officers in Ohio last year.
Meth abusers risk strokes, hallucinations, paranoia, convulsions and prolonged psychosis. The drug, also known as “speed,” “crank” or “ice,” can be smoked, snorted, injected or taken orally. It increases the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate, dilates the pupils and produces euphoria. High doses or chronic use leads a user to develop dramatic mood swings and hyperactive behavior — a threat to themselves and everyone around them.
CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said the giant drug store chain follows federal guidelines (there are no laws in place), which urge retailers to restrict transactions to only 9 grams per sale. That translates to about three containers of pills or four bottles of the drug in liquid form.
“Before we instituted the restriction last fall, less than 1 percent of our customers ever purchased that much at one time,” DeAngelis said.
The purchasing restrictions may be a headache for consumers, especially those who suffer chronic colds or asthma. An alternative, such as placing all the ephedrine-laden medications behind the counter and out of reach, doesn’t seem fair to the average consumer.
“I, for one, don’t want to stand in line for a cold tablet for a runny nose,” said Lt. Steve Stienecker, commander of the Grand Lake Drug Task Force.
But it could be worse, Stienecker said. In some states, such as Tennessee, you must show a photo identification to purchase any quantity of cold medicine, he explained.
“But that still doesn’t stop people from stealing it,” he added.
Getting the word out and educating the public is the best way to curb the problem, he said.
“Awareness is the key,” he added.