ST. PAUL, Minn. - Faced with a growing crisis of methamphetamine addiction and toxic spills from homemade drug laboratories, 20 states are considering legislation that would impose tight restrictions on common cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient in making methamphetamine.
Although the bills vary in detail, most would classify pseudoephedrine as a controlled substance and would allow sales of products containing it, like Sudafed, only in pharmacies, not in grocery or convenience stores. Customers would have to purchase the medicine from a pharmacist, show photo identification and sign a logbook.
The state bills, and similar ones introduced in both houses of Congress last week, are expected to be opposed by groups representing drug, grocery and convenience stores.
The growing legislative interest in restricting sales of cold medicines, experts say, is a response to the rapid spread of methamphetamine from its origins in the rural West to become the No. 1 priority for law enforcement in many states in the Midwest and Southeast.
In the past year or so, methamphetamine has begun to move into some urban and suburban areas. And in Minneapolis and St. Paul, high school students have become addicted in significant numbers, one of the first such cases in the country.
"In Minnesota, meth is now breaking all the rules about how the drug spreads," said Deborah Durkin, coordinator of the methamphetamine program in the Minnesota Department of Health.
Another motivation for passing such laws is concern that makers of methamphetamine will flock to states that do not pass restrictions.
"If we don't have a strong restriction on pseudoephedrine in Minnesota, I fear we'll become the dumping ground for every meth head in the United States, as cooks cross state borders to find the laxest regulations," said Julie Rosen, a Republican state senator who is a sponsor of a methamphetamine bill here.
While 80 percent of the nation's methamphetamine supply is smuggled into the United States from Mexico or churned out in so-called superlabs in the Central Valley of California, the rest is produced in small home laboratories or even in the trunks of cars. The cooks who produce the drug that way usually grind up cold pills for the essential ingredient.
Nate, a 17-year-old high school senior here, said in an interview last week that he would often buy multiple packages of Sudafed at Wal-Mart and then turn them over to a neighbor who cooked the drug in a bathroom laboratory. In return, the dealer shared the finished product with him.
A major question about the new bills is how effective opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and grocery and drug store trade associations will be. In past years, lobbying by these groups has largely succeeded in stopping efforts to restrict sales of pseudoephedrine products.