Why Do Police Want a Centralized Database of Flu Sufferers?

Last Updated Oct 13, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

A federal law intended to restrict the crystal meth trade is leading to a centralized police database of flu sufferers. In a rash of recent cases across the South and Midwest, people innocently buying the nasal decongestant pseudoephedrine -- often sold as Pfizer (PFE)'s Sudafed, Dimetapp, and Advil Allergy Sinus, and Merck (MRK)'s Clarinex-D -- have been arrested for "promotion of meth manufacturing" when in fact all they have is a stuffy nose. Possessing too much pseudoephedrine is often the sole requirement for a "promotion of meth manufacturing" charge.

Pseudoephedrine sales were restricted federally in many states about five years ago because the legal non-prescription cough 'n' cold remedy can be used to make methamphetamine. Purchasers are restricted to a limited amount of pseudoephedrine and must sign a register at the pharmacy. Buy too much -- say, a couple of boxes for your family -- and you get arrested.

The laws often don't look at the intent of the purchaser, and innocent people suffering from nasal congestion are being arrested along with the tweakers and smurfers.

In Wabash Valley, Ind., Sally Harpold bought a box of Zyrtec and a box of Mucinex and became the subject of an early morning police raid:
The morning she was arrested, Harpold and her husband were awakened by police officers banging on the front door of their home at Midway along U.S. 36. She was allowed to get dressed, and was then taken in handcuffs to the Clinton Police Department, where she was questioned about her cold medicine purchases. She was later booked into jail, and her husband had to pay $300 bail to get her released.
Harpold is actually employed in law enforcement: she works at the Rockville Correctional Facility for women. Her police mugshot ran on the front page of her local newspaper under the headline "17 Arrested in Drug Sweep." The local cops couldn't care less, according to TribStar.com:
Vigo County Sheriff Jon Marvel, who recently renewed efforts to track pseudoephedrine sales in the Wabash Valley, understands Harpold's arrest is embarrassing for her.
"Sometimes mistakes happen," Marvel said. "It's unfortunate. But for the good of everyone, the law was put into effect.
Gary Schinagel, 47, a senior investment associate at Principal Financial Group in Mason City, Iowa, was arrested for the same thing. Schinagel is, literally, a choirboy, at a church in Sheffield, Iowa:
Schinagel isn't sure which law he broke. What he is sure of is that on Wednesday, his niece called him and told him his name was in a story she read on the Globe Gazette Web site.
The story said he was one of the suspects still at large after a police pseudoephedrine roundup of violators.
He went to the sheriff's office thinking he would clear up what was surely a mixup. Instead he was arrested, put in a holding room and told he needed $1,000 bail to get out.
Now his investment license is in jeopardy.

You don't have to spend too much time searching arrest reports to realize that police are making many arrests in which people are not actually accused of making or dealing meth. Instead, they're merely accused of possessing too much Sudafed. In this Alabama case, 25 people were arrested but only two of them actually possessed illegal drugs. Their mugshots are at the top of this story. Thirty-nine were named in this Tennessee drug operation, but if you look closely at the police blotter at the bottom of the story, many of them were charged only with "promotion of meth manufacture (purchase of pseudoephedrine)." In this Jackson, Tenn., roundup, 44 were arrested, mostly not for making meth.

Law enforcement officers admit they end up busting people who simply have the sniffles:
Once they started using MethCheck in Laurel County, Ky., [law enforcement officer Brian Lewis] and his officers tried to talk to everyone who attempted to go over the limit. Sometimes they knocked on a door and found a meth lab, Lewis said. ... And, in a few instances, officers knocked on the doors of innocent people, Lewis said.
One man took "pseudoephedrine every day for himself," Lewis said. But the man had family in town that week and "he stopped on the way home and picked his parents up a box which made him go over the limit."
The police's major complaint about the law is that it doesn't go far enough in allowing them to scrutinize the citizenry's medical records. The system falls down, they say, because the pharmacy records aren't centralized. They want to install a single, central online database into which all pharmacies would enter the indentifying information of anyone buying Sudafed. A bill in the Tennessee Senate already proposed such a system, MethCheck, a database run by a company named Appriss that already turns over its information to law enforcement. Ed Hudson, a special agent supervisor with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Pensacola, says he doesn't believe cold sufferers' medical records are entitled to privacy:
"This is a medication used for itchy eyes and sniffy nose," Hudson said. "I'm not sure how protective that's got to be."
Given that the pseudoephedrine law is a federal one signed by former President George Bush, it's not hard to imagine the MethCheck database going national.

Hat tip to Mises.org.

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