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February 12, 2005

Meaningless symbolism over substance in the war against drug abuse

In our family's weeklong bout with the flu, we used up most of the medications we had, so today, even though I'm still not completely recovered, I drove over to Wal-Mart so I could restock.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that different family members have their favorite brands when it comes to relieving cold/flu symptoms. My wife prefers a combination: Tylenol for aches and fever, Robitussin DM for cough and chest congestion, and Benadryl-D for head congestion and runny nose. Not being a really patient guy on matters like this, I prefer a one-shot deal that covers all of these areas: Vicks 44M.

At Wal-Mart I grabbed another bottle of 44M and two boxes of Benadryl-D (my wife has persistent allergies, so she goes through a box of Benadryl pretty quickly even in the absence of the flu). At the register, however, I was told that I was limited to two items containing pseudoephedrine (the active ingredient in Sudafed).

This restriction, of course, is a reaction to the fact that pseudoephedrine is used in the production of methamphetamines, the abuse of which is a growing problem. (Aside: According to the article linked in this paragraph, the pseudoephedrine must come in tablet form in order for it to be extracted for meth production -- a fact which Wal-Mart does not take into account when including liquid Vicks 44M in the restrictions).

So why am I complaining? Why not accept a little inconvenience if it will foil attempts to buy pseudoephedrine in sufficient quantities to allow meth production?

Well, for starters, policies like Wal-Mart's do virtually nothing to prevent such purchases by drug abusers. Anybody clever enough to set up a meth lab is also clever enough to know that Wal-Mart can't prevent someone from taking a few friends along, using multiple checkout lines to make the necessary purchases. If I had desired, I could have put my bags in the car, gone back in, and bought two more packages without running afoul of Wal-Mart's safeguards.

I don't mean to pick on Wal-Mart; many store chains have similar restrictions. My point is that such restrictions are a Maginot Line in the war against drug abuse. Stores can brag that they're Doing Something About It, when all they're really doing is being a pain to people who have no intention of abusing these products.

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