The War on Drugs is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things — Pseudoephedrine Edition

Pills -- phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine? Photo by ParentingPatch. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Pills — phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine? Photo by ParentingPatch. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“The leading decongestant used by millions of Americans looking for relief from a stuffy nose is no better than a dummy pill,” the Associated Press reports, citing the unanimous vote of a US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.

Phenylephrine, the best-selling over the counter “decongestant” in the US, just doesn’t work, at least in orally ingested form and for that purpose (it has other  uses — if you’ve got hemorrhoids or a priapism, you might want to talk to your doctor about it). For nearly two decades, you’ve probably been taking what amounts to a placebo for one of the most common cold and flu symptoms.

Why? Because of the war on drugs.

Pseudoephedrine is a fantastic decongestant. It’s cheap — or at least it WAS cheap — and it clears those clogged sinuses right up. But starting in 2006, it disappeared from OTC cold/flu medications and got moved behind pharmacy counters. You could no longer buy it without showing ID, you could only buy limited amounts, and if you bought “too much” (by visiting different pharmacies) or “too often,” the police might just pay you a visit.

Pseudoephedrine was, at one time, commonly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. By making it difficult to get pseudoephedrine,  drug warrior logic ran, the difficulty of cooking meth — and the price of the final product — could be driven up and its availability severely curtailed.

That worked exactly as well as one might expect.

Meth cooks just hired people (referred to, at least in the hit television show “Breaking Bad,” as “smurfs”) to drive around to pharmacies buying pseudoephedrine.

One morning on trash day, I walked out of my home in St. Louis and saw little white pseudoephedrine boxes — hundreds or thousands of them — scattered across yards as far as the eye could see. For some reason, instead of just shredding the boxes, the meth makers had decided to fill people’s dumpster carts with them in the windy pre-dawn hours (I get the impression meth makers may not possess fantastic judgment skills).

Suppressing pseudoephedrine did eventually start “working” in the sense that the market cap of Kimberly-Clark (maker of Kleenex brand facial tissues) has more than doubled from then to now.

As for methamphetamine, its use has also more than doubled, as have methamphetamine overdose fatalities, since the pseudoephedrine pseudo-ban. Production largely moved from rural mobile home labs to industrial cartel facilities in Mexico.

Now the drug warriors want to escalate to literal war with the Mexican cartels. What could possibly go wrong?

I’d like to tell you this whole saga is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s had you needlessly sneezing for 17 years now,  just another example of how dumb the war on drugs really is.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.