North Dakota Joins List of States Requiring Surveillance for Cold Meds

NEW SALEM, N.D. -- Got a stuffy nose or a nagging allergy? In this western North Dakota farm town, it's a good bet you'll head to the Golden West Shopping Center for relief.

The modest brown building houses S&B Family Food Pride and the New Salem Pharmacy, and customers who walk the grocery aisles or squeeze through the druggist's sliding door are hardly strangers.

"We know our clientele so well. We know everybody that comes through the door, pretty much," said Vicki Shultz, a longtime pharmacy employee.

But next month, anyone who wanders into either business won't be able to leave with a range of popular cold medicines without showing identification first.

Similar rules are popping up around the country as lawmen try to corral the spread of methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant that authorities blame for a growing list of crimes and health problems.

Shultz wonders if the law will really stop any meth cooks in New Salem.

"For me, it's just going to be a lot of extra paperwork," she said.

North Dakota's new rules, which take effect June 1, require retailers to keep a closer eye on over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine, a legal drug that meth makers distill for its stimulant properties.

Those who sell the targeted medications will have to ask patrons for identification and record the purchaser's name, birth date, address and ID number. The clerk who rings up the sale also must initial the record.

Stores also must choose one of three additional security steps: installing video surveillance, displaying only one package of each brand or keeping cold pills behind the counter.

The new law will help authorities do more to choke the supply of chemicals that meth manufacturers need, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. Previous rules already limit the amount of pseudoephedrine in pills, restrict how much medicine a customer may buy and require purchasers to be 18 or older.

This month, the attorney general's office is conducting a series of training sessions for merchants in 10 cities. The first two are being held Monday in Williston and Minot.

Most of North Dakota's meth supply is believed to come from large labs in other states, but smaller meth makers keep law enforcement officials busy arresting criminals and cleaning up the toxic byproducts.

"For almost everyone, this new requirement will be a minor inconvenience. But it will be a major roadblock for meth cooks," the attorney general said.

Stenehjem doesn't anticipate problems implementing the new restrictions, since retailers already participate in a "Meth Watch" program that asks them to monitor cold pill sales and report suspicious purchases.

"By the time they know how bad the problem is ... they want to help," Stenehjem said. "They've realized they don't want to make money this way."

North Dakota grocers are leery of the compulsory identification requirements, said Tom Woodmansee, director of the North Dakota Grocers Association.

Some retailers may stop selling the affected cold products to avoid the hassle of asking for identification and keeping a log book of purchases, Woodmansee said.

"Pretty soon we're going to have to be deputized to be working in a grocery store. If we can stop it, fine. But we'll have to see if we can," Woodmansee said.

At S&B in New Salem, owner Scott Keller already has a surveillance camera pointed down the aisle that stocks cold pills. He's more worried about the hassle of bothering longtime customers for their driver's license.

"It's going to be a pain all the way around, for us and our customers," Keller said.

Stenehjem, however, believes North Dakotans with the sniffles shouldn't be apprehensive about being carded before treating their colds. Consumers often have to show identification already when they write a check, or buy alcohol or tobacco, he said.

"Frankly, I don't care who knows if I have a cold," Stenehjem said. "But the people who are making meth care if someone knows they are buying these chemicals."

North Dakota's new law was patterned after rules in Oklahoma, where tighter restrictions brought a dramatic decline in the number of meth labs discovered by police, Stenehjem said.

At least seven other states have some provision to keep records or report sales of pseudoephedrine, and 11 others have sales limits for chemicals used to make meth, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures tally.

The count is likely greater now after action in several statehouses this year, said Blake Harrison, an NCSL researcher who tracks the regulations.

"It's been in the last five years that states have been addressing the precursor issue," he said. "States did a good job of putting the restrictions in place, but they're sort of fine-tuning them now."

Lawmakers in Minnesota's state House endorsed a measure that would require a prescription to buy the tablet forms of medications containing pseudoephedrine, but the measure still faces additional legislative review.

"That would be the strongest approach, I think, if that passed," Harrison said.

Dennis Johnson, vice president of the North Dakota Pharmacists Association, said the benefits of controlling meth seem worth the inconvenience.

"How do you get a handle on this meth thing? Everybody's grappling with how to do it," he said.

Johnson predicts that most of the opposition will come from grocery stores and truck stops rather than pharmacists, who continually look for more ways to talk with patients about their health.

"It might inconvenience a few people who use it all the time, but there's plenty of studies out there that say they should consult a health professional before they grab some of these over-the-counter things," he said.