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The war on cold medicine isn't working 

Lowdown

Much of the success of American law enforcement can be traced to this important reality: Criminals tend to be stupid. In other words, they catch themselves.

On the other hand, much of the failure of American law enforcement can be traced to another important reality: Our criminal laws tend to be stupider than our criminals.

Take the Combat Meth Act of 2004. It prompted various states to set up electronic systems for limiting and tracking sales of pseudoephedrine, the widely used cold medicine. These pills are good for easing the dripping and sniffling that come with colds and allergies, but pseudoephedrine is also good for making something terribly bad: methamphetamine — the savagely addictive drug that is a scourge of communities across the country, especially in rural areas.

Banning over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine and rationing the amount each customer can buy was well-intentioned. But restricting its sale has created a very lucrative black market for the pills, luring thousands of new peddlers, hustlers and opportunists into the illicit meth underworld.

Meth brokers and producers recruit legions of friends, homeless people, college kids eager for quick cash, and even their own children to go from pharmacy to pharmacy, with each "smurfer," as they are called, buying the limit on the pills.

Using store specials and even clipping coupons, they can buy a box of pseudoephedrine for $8, then sell the pills to meth producers for $50. That's a nice profit for 30 minutes or so of their time.

So, while this drug war on cold pills has added inconvenience to legitimate customers and expense to pharmacies, it has failed to curb the meth trade and has created a booming new network of black-market criminals for the police to chase.

Can we now admit this is stupid and try something else?

  • Our criminal laws tend to be stupider than our criminals.

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