Bad Medicine

If you're super bored, or really desperate, you can make crystal meth from Tylenol Cold/Severe Congestion cool-burst caplets.

You need denatured ethanol, or acetone, or anhydrous ammonia. You need iodine crystals and red phosphorous.

And then you need 16,560 Tylenol caplets -- a purchase that alone will set you back $3,857, plus tax.

But if you get enough of those ingredients, and buy those 690 boxes of Tylenol, and spend hours boiling and filtering and then filtering all over again, you could, conceivably, end up with crystal meth.

One ounce of crystal meth.

An ounce that would cost you $400, tops, on the street.

And that is precisely why crystal meth users, no matter how badly addicted, aren't known to spend their time boiling and filtering Tylenol Cold/Severe Congestion cool-burst caplets.

There are better ways to get the drug. Cheaper ways.

Even the addicts in Arizona who "cook" their own crystal meth -- and the Drug Enforcement Agency is convinced there aren't too many left, now that cheap, potent Mexican meth has flooded the market -- don't use Tylenol Cold/Severe Congestion. They know they can get nine times the yield from Sudafed.

And that's why it's so bizarre that the city councils in Phoenix and Scottsdale have enacted tough new ordinances that restrict stuff like, well, Tylenol cold medicine. And that businesses like Walgreens are putting it behind the counter even in places without such laws.

Here's how it works:

As of this week, customers in Phoenix who want to buy decongestants containing any amount of pseudoephedrine must go to the pharmacy or another area where the product is kept under lock and key.

They're limited to three boxes, per month.

They'll have to show ID and sign a logbook.

And every month, the pages of the logbook will be faxed to the Phoenix Police Department, so the police can keep track of who's buying Tylenol Cold/Severe Congestion, and Aleve Cold and Sinus, and Robitussin.

If any store sells one of those products, and doesn't follow the rules, the cops can seize the stuff, legally.

That's the new law.

Welcome to the politics of Arizona's crystal meth crisis.

These days, politicians are so eager to look like they're doing something to stop the demon drug that they're locking up decongestants that are rarely, if ever, used in meth production.

And, yeah, they look tough. Hey, they're fighting big pharmaceutical companies and taking on child-killing meth cooks!

But it's mostly smoke and mirrors.

"This idea of regulating pseudoephedrine is 10 years late," says Jim Molesa, a DEA agent based in Flagstaff. Molesa is considered the leading authority on Mexican meth in Arizona.

"It's laughable," he says. "Are you that out of touch that you can't grasp the issue? Every community needs a comprehensive treatment program."

Indeed, with meth pouring in from Mexico and the local lab problem mostly under control, the idea of devoting so many resources to fight meth cooks is showy distraction, not effective public policy.

And what it's distracting us from is a complete mess.

The two key state officials who should be leading the charge on the state's meth crisis have dropped the ball in wildly different ways.

Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who's been so successful at running this red state that Republicans can't even come up with a serious gubernatorial challenger for 2006, has basically ignored the problem.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Terry Goddard, also a Democrat, has made crystal meth his crusade. But by focusing on labs -- the one meth-related problem in Arizona that's actually been declining for years -- his actions reek of political opportunism.

For Goddard, targeting meth labs has become a one-dimensional Western. The politicians and lawmen are in one corner, with their white hats and good intentions. In the other, the evil drug companies and their lackeys, who care nothing about the abuse of children.

Those who oppose his plan for taking on meth labs, he claimed in one press release, have capitulated to the "pharmaceutical industry."

But the truth is much more complicated.

There are pharmaceutical companies on both sides of the issue.

The new Phoenix ordinances, in fact, follow the game book of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies: Pfizer, the company that makes Sudafed.

The medicine that's actually used in meth labs.

Meanwhile, the real truth of Arizona's meth problem is being ignored.

Despite good indication that a significant number of Arizona residents have struggled with meth addiction for at least eight years, officials have yet to run an effective, statewide public health campaign about the dangers of the drug.

Our leaders haven't even figured out who's using meth, much less how to target potential addicts before they start.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske