The Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005, which trumps laws that had already been passed in many states, made stores move their cold medicines containing the decongestant pseudoephedrine - which can be extracted and used to make methamphetamine - behind the counter, limit the amount that consumers can purchase and require purchasers to present photo identification. Stores must also keep personal information about these customers in a logbook for two years.
The regulations lend an illicit air to a legitimate attempt to banish a stuffy nose. Many cold meds now include phenylephrine, which doesn't carry the same restrictions - or efficacy.
"Phenylephrine, at the FDA-approved dose of 10 mg for adults, is unlikely to provide relief of nasal congestion," University of Florida pharmacy professor Leslie Hendeles and Randy C. Hatton, co-director of the Drug Information Service at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, wrote in a July 2006 letter to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. "Only 38 percent of the dose reaches the systemic circulation, compared with 90% of a pseudoephedrine dose."
But if consumers view this new counter ritual as a small sacrifice to keep meth off the streets, they may be disappointed to see that tough restrictions at the drugstore have failed to dent availability of the illegal drug. Restricting pseudoephedrine may have shut down small-time neighborhood meth cookeries, but Mexican cartels have seized the opportunity to swoop into unconquered territory and make those meth customers their own.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center's 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment, "Marked success in decreasing domestic methamphetamine production through law enforcement pressure and strong precursor chemical sales restrictions has enabled Mexican (drug trafficking organizations) to rapidly expand their control over methamphetamine distribution - even in eastern states - as users and distributors who previously produced the drug have sought new, consistent sources."
Additionally, the flow of "ice" - highly concentrated meth that is usually smoked - from Mexico has increased sharply, most likely creating more addicts because of the better high it creates, states the report.
So while lawmakers have focused on regulating sniffling customers at drugstore counters, Mexican cartels have monopolized the gaps left in the meth market, bringing their goods - and guns - across a porous border. "Now, approximately 80 percent of all meth purchased in the U.S. originates from Mexican labs," U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in a May address at the National Methamphetamine and Chemicals Initiative Strategy Conference.
Ask any law enforcement officer, said National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner, and "they'll agree we're only catching a small fraction of narcotics coming across the border." The high supply, he added, is evidenced by the low street price. Many captured illegal immigrants bear chemical burns, he said, a telltale sign of making some meth to make a quick buck before crossing. Not all of the smugglers are undocumented, and many drugs come through points of entry. But drug smugglers are increasingly getting into the human smuggling business as that becomes more lucrative, Bonner said.
The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations also bring their wars against each other across the border. And if the five severed heads thrown onto a dance floor in Michoacan state last fall to intimidate rival drug gangs gives us any indication, we should be extremely concerned.
"We're seeing a level of violence (on the border) as of late like we've never seen before," said Bonner, adding that the number of assaults - an underreported statistic - against Border Patrol agents catapulted from 374 in fiscal year 2004 to 778 in 2005.
Even as Mexico aims to crack down on pseudoephedrine with tighter importation limits on the precursor chemical, the NDIC assessment states that drug trafficking organizations will most likely just smuggle in what they need.
So one can argue that the pseudoephedrine laws, while providing back-patting sound bites for lawmakers, have also opened up a whole new can of worms in the U.S. drug war when coupled with a loose border. And this is a headache that won't easily be vanquished.