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You Mean There Are Reasons for the Cold Medicine Law?

Once again, the issue of requiring identification for cold medicine has reared its head. At least once a year, someone starts bitching and moaning about how they had to stand in line for Sudafed, and the whole airing of grievances starts all over again.

Now, I certainly am not immune to complaining about meaningless government regulations. As a legislative staffer, I worked on plenty of goofball bills that I probably wouldn’t have minded seeing go up in flames. But I also wrote the cold medicine bill – and it’s one of the proudest things I’ve done in my time working for the Senate.

So while I hate to inject actual facts into the parade of complaining, I have to do so, just so people know there actually was a reason to do this.

First, a distinction has to be made between the issue of meth labs and the issue of meth use. The law was intended to keep meth cooks from being able to purchase large amounts of pseudoephedrine to set up toxic meth labs in their homes. These are the poisonous labs where children often live, and police have to raid wearing Haz-Mat suits. Of course, the bill isn’t going to eliminate demand for meth – nobody ever said it would. To argue that the bill is ineffective because meth is coming in from Mexico is a red herring.

In fact, statistics show that the number of meth labs seized in the state has dropped by 60%. So, in fact, the bill hasn’t “done nothing.” It actually has accomplished something fairly extraordinary – which is why, if you ask anyone in law enforcement in Western Wisconsin, they’ll tell you that this is the best law enforcement bill they’ve seen in a long time.

Secondly, some of the criticisms of the bill are just factually incorrect, and not by a little bit. Here’s one, for instance:

For the last two years, the law has required that all drugs containing pseudoephedrine – an ingredient in meth -- be dispensed only by pharmacists who are required to keep a record of your purchases. Buying too much cold medicine in a 30 day period is now criminal act.
Actually, the state law (to which this quote refers) actually only deals with the tablet form of pseudoephedrine products. It has nothing to do with pseudoephedrine in liquid or gel caps. Under state law, those can be sold by any store in the state, without any photo ID or signature. You could buy as much as you want. You can even hand it out for Halloween, if you wanted (the federal law which passed after the state law required liquid pseudoephedrine to be kept behind the counter).

As a side note, following passage of the bill, the easiest place to get large amounts of pseudoephedrine in tablet form was from Jim Doyle’s Canadian drug website.

Opponents of the law are fond of saying that the "99.9%" of the people who use Sudafed responsibly shouldn't be incovenienced by the remainder that don't. Let's say they're right - using their numbers, the 0.1% that don't use the drug responsibly would amount to 5,500 meth labs in Wisconsin. It would take the combined police forces of five states to raid and clean up that many labs, and the treatment costs of the innocent people poisoned would be astronomical.

Furthermore, as the bill was being debated, stores were already moving their cold medicine behind the counter voluntarily. Wal-Mart and Target had already done so, without any new state law. Additionally, soon after the state law passed, Congress passed its own federal law that nearly mirrored the Wisconsin law (it allowed for the state law to take precedence in areas where it was more rigid). In fact, the federal law goes further than the state in requiring liquid and gel caps to be put behind the counter, which the Wisconsin legislature thought was too heavy-handed. So even had the state law not passed, there’d literally be no difference in how you buy your cold medicine today. Maybe you should send George W. Bush a letter to complain.

Also, you may recall that when Wisconsin passed its law, all of the neighboring states were passing equally or more stringent laws of their own. Minnesota and Illinois passed similar laws, and Iowa’s law is so tough, you can go to prison for saying the word “Sudafed.” Naturally, because neighboring states pass laws, it doesn’t necessarily make them good laws (see: ethanol). However, what we do know is this: if Wisconsin is the only state where you can buy unlimited amounts of pseudoephedrine, the meth labs would explode in our state. It would be a complete disaster.

Of course, nobody in southeast Wisconsin was aware at what an issue meth was in the western part of the state. Most of the resistance to the law is because nobody understands the problems that meth labs cause. I would bet that most people outside of Milwaukee are oblivious to the daily details about the violence in the inner city. Does that mean it's not happening? Sheriffs in western Wisconsin have estimated that 65% of the crime they see is somehow meth-related, whether it be child or spousal abuse, theft, or other violent acts. It has literally become an epidemic there – and the statistics show that the meth labs were heading east. The new laws seem to have thwarted the movement of meth labs, for which everyone should be thankful.

In fact, you know where nobody complains about having to show photo ID to get come cold medicines? Places like Iowa, where law enforcement has been overrun by the presence of meth labs, and where they've pulled 1,000 children out of those labs since 2001. I don’t easily fall prey to the “if we can only save one child” line of argument, but we researched case after case where infants in Wisconsin were living in homes with explosive and toxic chemicals, sleeping on floors covered in feces, surrounded by the corpses of their dead house pets. There are hundreds of kids like this that are going to be sick for a long time because they lived in a home with a meth lab - not to mention the physical and sexual abuse they generally endure. So I’m sorry if I don’t exactly feel sympathy for you when you have to wait a couple extra minutes in line for certain types of cold medicine.

Naturally, this isn’t going to keep anyone from complaining. But there’s a reason the bill passed the Senate unanimously and the Assembly 95 to 4. It’s not like conservatives like Scott Jensen, Scott Fitzgerald, John Gard, Mike Huebsch, Tom Reynolds, and others were “bamboozled” into voting for it. They simply had done their homework as to the dire need for the new law.

In the end, the new law has prevented meth labs from moving eastward in Wisconsin, and has kept Wisconsin from being swamped by would-be meth cooks from neighboring states. Of course, the threat of a statewide epidemic isn't enough to override the frustration of someone who has to wait in line at a drug store. That's just the way it is.