You can't buy Sudafed and Vick's VapoRub at the same time at Costco

Thanksgiving day, I caught some kind of nasty bug, or spore or pollen that has had me sniffling and sneezing and in major discomfort for nearly 3 days straight now. I had no idea that so much liquid could drip, or be forcefully expelled from one's nose until this time. Makes me wonder what lies ahead as I slowly decrepify into middle age.

I also happened to be out of the remedies available to me to alleviate these discomforts, to wit: Sudafed and Vick's VapoRub.

The former item takes care of the sniffles, which usually then takes care of the sneezes, and it doesn't knock me out like other products available.

The latter item has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. I had the good fortune to have all four of my great-grandmothers alive through a goodly chunk of my childhood, and my maternal grandfather's mother, whom I called "Nanny" was my favorite. She knew all sorts of nineteenth century cure-alls, but was smart enough to go with the flow of new products. She felt witch hazel was a better astringent than anything else. She knew that no icebox was truly complete without a nice cooked ham, a pound of oleo, and a gallon of Rainbow Sherbet.

She also knew that VapoRub not only helped one when one is sick, but could also help one sleep, in a wholly natural and non-narcotic way. She also told me it helped muscle strains, headaches, and she definitely did not think that it shouldn't be placed directly into the nostrils.

Thus, I was trained from early childhood by Nanny (and a rather popular commercial running in the early 70's featuring a caring mother and adorable child) that a little VapoRub will soothe just about any problem. It's as much a comfort food to me when I'm sick as my mother's home-made chicken and rice soup.

So, sniffling and sneezing, I hied myself off to my local Costco for my monthly staple stocking ... and because of my present physical state, I tossed a economy sized vat of VapoRub and oversized box of Sudafed into my shopping basket along with my cheese danish and Clos Du Bois Merlot.

After suffering an interminable line at the checkout, I hand my plastic ID to the clerk, who begins totting up my purchases.

Without a word, she scans the Sudafed, then tosses the VapoRub into a box at her feet.

Thinking she'd simply had a few neurons mis-fire, I told her that the VapoRub was not to be returned, but was a legitmate purchase.

She looked at me rather archly, and rattled off a rehearsed speech:

"DEA regulations prohibit us from selling pseudoephedrine products in the same transaction as VapoRub. Sorry."

"WHAT?!?", I exclaimed, "The two go hand in hand, don't they?"

"Yeah, if you want to whip up a batch of crystal meth."

For the second time in as many hours I was stunned into stupefaction by a retail clerk. "So, the DEA doesn't allow me to buy products that will help me get over a bug, because of the fear that I'll use the products to somehow make a controlled substance?"

Smacking her bubble gum she replied, "That's about the size of it."

I chose the VapoRub over the Sudafed (better deal, if you do the math, which I did), and left, feeling a little dazed'n'confused over the events my day's shopping had caused.

When I returned home, I began surfing to find out just how someone could think that two commonly available remedies for the common cold could somehow combine to create the purest form of speed there is.

And what I found was ... enlightening to say the least. Apparently you can use the cotton from VapoRub inhalers with some other substances to form an ether which is then used in a process to reduce Sudafed to raw pseudoephedrine. The apparent result of the operation (which sounded extremely foolhardy and dangerous) is not crystal but simply Sudafed without the food coloring and sawdust, ie, you remove the inactive ingredients and end up with something that you could probably sell as crank to really stupid people.

I don't know who to be mad at: Costco, for being somewhat overzealous in their interpretation of the regulations, or the DEA for being overzealous in the war on drugs. I can't find anything, anywhere, on the web that details a law or code or statute that states, specifically, that pseudoephedrine and mentholated products may not, for any reason, be purchased at the same time.

As a result of this experience, my awareness was somewhat heightened, causing me to note the number of security guards prowling the local mega mall of which Costco is a part. I began to wonder just why I had to produce a receipt upon exiting Costco (or CompUSA). If the intent of the experience was to turn me into a paranoid who doesn't need speed to be a paranoid, then it succeeded ... in spades.

However, just to be evil and contrary, I purchased a box of Sudafed and a small bottle of VapoRub at my friendly neighborhood 7-11 ... with no problems at all.

Update 01-11-01: I spoke with the manager of my local Costco, and related the above incident to him. After a bit of discussion, he came to the conclusion that the clerk in question was mistaken in not allowing me to purchase the two products in question simultaneously. He stressed, however, that I could only buy one of each product in any one purchase transaction. This falls more in line with mat catastrophe's information below.

First and foremost, contrary to popular belief, Vicks inhalers cannot be processed into crystal meth. Although they do contain methamphetamine, the methaphetamine in Vick's Inhalers is of the levo- isomer, and therefore biochemically inactive.

Second, obtaining ether from Vick's inhalers is hardly an efficient or intelligent way of procuring the chemical.. For "refining" Sudafed tablets into pure P-fed, there are a multitude of solvents available, many of which can be purchased at a Chem supply house for much, much cheaper than a good quantity of inhalers.

And thirdly, along the same lines, someone who has the practical knowledge to make Meth in a home lab would be very unlikely to use Sudafed as a source; a little birdie has told me that Wal-Mart brand generic is the preferred source if the reaction starts with Pseudo as a reactant. In a large scale lab, they'd likely start with Ephedrine HCL or Sulphate, imported from Canada or Europe...

In any case, I severely doubt that the DEAs influence on this retailer to not allow the purchase of medication has impacted the street availability of Crystal Meth in any way, shape or form. It's a pity, really.

The upshot of the policy outlined in the article posted by Mat Catastrophe is that Walmart does indeed limit the sale of its Equate brand pseudoephedrine to 2-per-customer in the larger boxes, and Costco limits the sale of its generic Kirkland pseudoephedrine to 1-per-customer in its three-pack large box. Costco also maintains a database of pseudoephedrine buyers, which is an easy task given that you must present a member's card upon checkout.

Walmart, however, continues to profit from this arrangement; as hobbyist methamphetamine producers are quite aware of what purchases will result in a flag, they know to buy no more than two at a time, pay in cash, and always buy something else along with the pseudoephedrine. Clearly, this is a win-win situation for Walmart, which gets to comply with the DEA regulations and still profit from the high demand for methamphetamine.

It's also worth noting that Walmart's exceedingly cheap generic brand is without a doubt the most inexpensive means of procuring pseudoephedrine without either raising suspicions of intent to manufacture, or shoplifting. This latter option is becoming more rampant; on any given day, a trip to the pharmacy section of your local drugstore is likely to reveal empty boxes of Sudafed and otherwise depleted inventory.

The DEA's likely next step is to require that pseudoephedrine be sold strictly over-the-counter, and only to those that show photographic ID. In turn, methamphetamine producers will need to resort to more dangerous and potentially violent situations to obtain the desired precursors, as the demand for methamphetamine is unlikely to decrease any time soon. In fact, the main result of the DEA's actions has only been to increase the street value of the drug.

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