08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turning Cold Medicine into a Controlled Substance?

Should common chemicals found in cold medications such as pseudoephedrine be made into a controlled substance? I don't think so. But, the city council of Washington, MO disagrees.

Earlier this month they became the first local government in the country to require a prescription for cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine -- a substance that can be used to manufacture methamphetamine. The unprecedented move came out of the city counsels frustration caused by the inaction of the Missouri Legislature to combat methamphetamine use and abuse. The ACLU quickly took a position against the anti-meth ordinance

As it stands now, consumers with colds across the country must present a photo ID and sign a log in order to purchase cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

The ordinance created by the city council has attracted interest from other cities that want to follow them. This sets a dangerous precedent. There are an estimated 34 different chemicals found in common household products such as lighter fluid, road flares and matches that can also be used to make meth. In the future are they going to declare that these chemicals can also become controlled substances?

The war on drugs has created convenient vehicles of looking tough on crime while hiding being the shield of public safety. But that shield gets worn down when our basic rights are curtailed through its use. In 2006 a federal law went into effect that forced cold sufferers to jump through ridiculous hoops to purchase what were originally over-the-counter medications. Customers now have to show photo identification and sign logs that are monitored by the police.

The manufacture, trafficking and abuse of meth have jumped to the forefront of national concern as the latest U.S. "drug epidemic." Cover stories depict meth as "America's Most Dangerous Drug." Alarmist media coverage of the dangers of meth and the draconian political responses that followed are reminiscent of the public reaction to crack cocaine in the 1980s. A new federal government Meth/Drug Hot Spots program was soon implemented. It offered local and state agencies almost $400 million to find and eradicate meth labs. Through financial incentives, policing policies were increased to take advantage of this new federal cash cow, all in the name of stopping the meth epidemic.

Now desperate measures are being enacted to tackle this "high priority"
problem -- measures that sometimes invade the privacy and civil liberties of citizens in ways that seem far removed from the war on drugs. Recent studies by several policy organizations such as the Sentencing Project have questioned the very existence this so-called epidemic, busting many of the myths perpetuated by the media. The studies concluded that meth is actually one of the rarest of illegal drugs used, with its use declining among youth, stabilizing among adults and demonstrating no increase in first-time users.

Furthermore, even governmental data dispute the existence of an epidemic. We need to invest scarce public resources into educating the public about the use of meth and providing high quality treatment options to fight addiction, not create needless legislation or layer on ineffective bureaucratic busy work.

The ordinance implemented by the Washington, MO city counsel leads to the further erosion of precious civil liberties. It might not be apparent now, but neither was our right to not be hassled when buying cold medicine before the law changed.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 to Life and a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance