An unneeded registry

April 11, 2006

Apair of Indiana college students and their teen-aged companion drove to Maryland last month to stock up on cold pills they could resell at a tidy profit.

Indiana is one of 35 states that have imposed limits on the sale of over-the-counter medicines used to produce a cheap version of the highly addictive crystal meth. So over spring break, the young entrepreneurs headed here, using a global positioning device to locate retailers who they thought would have unprotected stashes of pseudoephedrine and allergy medication.

Predictably, some Maryland politicians are now demanding that here, too, everyone seeking relief from a cold should be logged into a registry of potential methamphetamine cooks available for police review. But there's no good reason for such an invasion of privacy.

And besides, the federal government has already beat the local folks to the punch. The Patriot Act update enacted last month included a section that attempts to curb methamphetamine trafficking through a variety of tactics, including restricting the sale of cold pills. The first phase, which took effect Sunday, limits the daily purchase of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine to 3.6 grams -- about 120 tablets. As of Sept. 30, a monthly limit of 9 grams kicks in, the drugs must be kept out of customers' reach, and purchasers will be required to show identification and sign a logbook.

Maryland prosecutors say the federal law is inadequate because it doesn't provide for local enforcement. Yet in the case of the Spring Break Shoppers, the system worked -- even before the federal law took effect. A retailer became suspicious and tipped off police.

Granted, those students couldn't be prosecuted here. But they aren't the source of a national meth affliction local officials fear is coming to Maryland. At least 80 percent of methamphetamine illegally trafficked in this country comes from so-called super labs in Mexico and elsewhere. Those labs should be the top targets of law enforcement resources. The most valuable feature of the new federal law makes it easier to track meth precursor chemicals internationally.

There's just not enough reward to justify keeping a cold pill registry that's both deeply offensive to privacy and a waste of police time to wade through it. A recent pursuit of heavy pseudoephedrine buyers in Phoenix, Ariz., revealed "a big family racked by the flu," according to the Phoenix New Times.

Congress should repeal the registry before it makes every sneezer a suspect.

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