Pseudoephedrine and Methamphetamine

MARCH 01, 2005
Cmdr John Burke

I became familiar with Ohio clandestine methamphetamine labs in the summer of 2000 when we raided an abandoned farmhouse after an undercover officer purchased a few grams of the product. Inside the house were several adults and a couple of children, all living in substandard conditions, with all the adults emaciated from constant use of methamphetamine.

In addition to finding small amounts of the drug, I also became acquainted with other precursor chemicals, like ether from starting fluid cans, lithium batteries, and pseudoephedrine tablets that had been used in the cooking process. Individuals who had learned a recipe from another meth abuser, and were risking all of their lives while handling volatile chemicals, had cooked all of this on a stove.

Also in the residence were over 50 firearms, most of them semiautomatic rifles, fully loaded and ready to fire. Fortunately, we surprised them and needed no force to take them into custody. We eventually learned that domestic violence, child endangerment, and overwhelming paranoia were an almost everyday occurrence at this house. I would also learn that methamphetamine was the most addictive drug I have ever encountered, with about a 6% successful recovery rate for addicts.

I also knew that the Western United States had been suffering through this problem long before it came to Ohio, and that the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that over 7000 clandestine labs were discovered by law enforcement in 2003, with Missouri likely leading the country. Oklahoma made pseudoephedrine a Schedule 5 (CV) controlled substance in April 2004 after 3 state troopers were killed by meth cooks. Its clandestine meth labs have dropped by more than 80%.

Now a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers have sponsored a bill to require customers to show identification and talk to a pharmacy employee when they want to purchase products containing pseudoephedrine. If the bill passes, customers would be able to purchase up to 9 g of pseudoephedrine per month, equaling about 300 pills every 30 days. It also contains grant funding for methamphetamine treatment.

Opponents say that this type of legislation hurts the overwhelming majority of people who buy pseudoephedrine products—legitimate customers like you and me. Customers may have to stand in line, and already busy pharmacy employees will spend inordinate amounts of time checking identification and selling an OTC product.

Still other companies point out the fact that many of these proposed laws target all forms of pseudoephedrine that include liquid and liquid-filled capsules, when the tablet form holds the only plausible means for manufacturing methamphetamine.

One observation I have made in our 4+ years dealing with this very destructive drug is that most of the pseudoephedrine used in our illegal labs was stolen from pharmacies, service stations, and discount stores. Clandestine meth lab cooks and their friends usually do not have the money to purchase the ingredients needed to make the drug, their addiction having sucked every penny out of them as they search for the next "high."

I wonder if a compromise may be in order if most of the OTC drug is being stolen for the manufacture of meth. Why not put pseudoephedrine products behind the counter at the front register like tobacco? No identification would need to be shown, no one would have to sign for it, but you would have to pay for the cough and cold medicines.

Also, if liquid and liquid-filled capsules are not conducive to being used for the manufacture of methamphetamine, then why not leave those products on the shelves? We need a sensible response to this huge and ugly problem, but we also do not need to unnecessarily punish the millions of legitimate users, while putting even more burden on pharmacy employees.

In the meantime, pharmacy employees need to be diligent in spotting suspicious activity. Do not put yourself in jeopardy, but if you can get a license number on a car, note a suspect's description, make sure the pharmacy cameras are functioning all of the time, and contact your local law enforcement agency, you may just be saving someone's life.

John Burke, director of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at, via the Web site, or by phone at 513-336-0070.