Cold medicine harder to find after meth law

Cold and allergy medicines have nearly disappeared in small stores in Snohomish County since a new law to fight methamphetamine went into effect, restricting the sale of over-the-counter remedies.

There were nearly 500 stores in the county licensed to sell cold and allergy medicines when the law went into effect in 2006.

Now only 27 stores that don’t have pharmacies inside still carry the restricted remedies.

“It’s really become a pharmacy-only product,” said Jim Doll, a pharmacist inspector with the state Board of Pharmacy.

None of the county’s 117 pharmacies have quit selling the products. Manufacturers have responded to tighter restrictions by marketing a replacement decongestant called phenylephrine that cannot be made into meth, Doll said.

Small stores and gas stations that once stocked a couple of boxes of cold medicine have opted to pull the products from the shelves to avoid the hassle, said Jan Teague, president and CEO of the Washington Retail Association.

“It’s a big burden,” Teague said. “They don’t want to offend or upset their customers so a lot of smaller stores have quit selling them.”

The idea behind the law was to make it tougher for people to obtain large quantities of cold and allergy remedies that contain chemicals that can be used to make meth. A similar federal law was passed last year.

Under the law, business owners must lock up over-the-counter products that contain ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. The law also limits the number of boxes people can buy in a 24-hour period. It requires customers to show photo identification and sign a logbook.

Those records are available for police to inspect.

The decline in stores carrying cold medicine is drastic but it’s not a surprising outcome, Teague said.

“It’s pretty typical of over-regulation. The question has to be asked if it’s helping anyone,” she said.

Drug detectives here believe it is.

The new law has contributed to the drop in homemade methamphetamine and makeshift labs, said Pat Slack, the commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force.

That means less hazardous waste in neighborhoods.

Local labs were steadily declining before the law was put into effect. The majority of meth is being imported from superlabs typically run by Mexican drug organizations.

Demand for meth remains high.

“What we’re doing here has little to do with the addiction. It’s more about the quality of life when we cut down on labs and toxic waste dumping,” Slack said.

Police say the drop in cold medicine vendors helps them better hunt for illegal purchases.

“From our position in 2006 we had over 600 sources for these drugs,” Slack said. “Now we’re down to a manageable level.”

The Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force is one of only a couple police agencies in the state that has been aggressively monitoring the logbooks, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

The drug task force has shown state legislators how the law works now and possible changes that could help track illegal transactions.

“The law needs to be changed and addressed so it’s consistent,” Slack said.

The state Board of Pharmacy, working with police, prosecutors and retailers, is studying the law. The board is expected to present its findings to the Legislature in November.

The county drug task force has suggested that all transactions be tracked electronically and a state database be developed to give police real-time information about purchases. As it stands now, police see the logs only about once a month.

The task force has inspected thousands of purchases at the county’s 117 pharmacies and identified nearly 60 people buying cold medicine over their limit.

A handful had been victims of identity theft. Others were buying larger quantities for their families. A couple people were using cold medicine for weight loss. One person bought more than allowed just to defy the law, Slack said.

About 34 people have been identified as repeat offenders. The majority of those people have been arrested on various charges.

There were 1,400 suspicious sales in Snohomish County in January 2006. That dropped to 10 in May. The decline has task force detectives looking elsewhere in meth cases.

The task force just recently inspected the small stores and gas stations. That’s when detectives discovered the huge decline in stores selling cold medicine.

It also was discovered that many nonpharmacy stores still selling the cold and allergy remedies were not following the law. Only 7 out of 27 were in compliance, according to the task force.

Pharmacy inspector Doll checked the stores, too. He declined to discuss what he found or whether any action will be taken against the business owners.

He said the state Board of Pharmacy has been providing shopkeepers and pharmacies with technical assistance.

“The intent wasn’t to take away business from anyone, but we wanted to protect the citizens,” Doll said.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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