Originally published in The Guardian
I hope I don’t get arrested. I surely won’t this evening but a few days hence that might change, if the authorities take undue interest in my household here in the US, the Land of the Free.
There’s sickness here, and has been all week – an annoying cold virus bouncing twixt me and my roommate. Standard over-the-counter decongestants haven’t worked, so today I bought the real deal: cold medicine with pseudoephedrine.
A few years ago that was easy: take a packet off a drugstore shelf, hand the cashier a few dollars and you’re done. But now pseudoephedrine is tightly controlled since vast quantities of it can be used to make methamphetamine, one of the latest formerly legal but now illegal mind-altering substances.
To unclog my nasal passages today I had my driver’s licence scanned into a law enforcement database – God forbid anyone without government-issued ID catch cold – and sign electronic documents agreeing to spend years in prison and pay fines multiple times my net worth should any of the 18 pills I bought be used for nefarious purposes as defined by any elected or appointed officials.
Should my roommate and I finish this batch – a four-and-a-half day supply for two people – he’ll have to buy the next one lest I be arrested. Two boxes of allergy medication is enough to send you to jail in the free republic of the USA. Last year, Sally Harpold from Indiana bought a box of cold meds for her husband, then another box for her daughter less than a week later. Four months after that, cops raided her home and brought her out in handcuffs because she’d bought more than three grams of pseudoephedrine in seven days.
Authoritarian apologists would tell me to stop complaining, since scanning my personal information into government and corporate databases whenever I buy cold medicine is still cheaper and more convenient than having to reserve, attend and pay for a doctor visit and prescription. And at least the government didn’t ban pseudoephedrine outright, the way it banned marijuana, opium, MDMA and multiple other drugs throughout the 20th century and this one.
But the government could change its mind any minute, and decree possession of pseudoephedrine an imprisonable offence. All in the name of public health and safety, valid concerns all-too-often invoked to dictate private behaviour.
Consider the controversy over the new pharmaceutical drug flibanserin, nicknamed “Women’s Viagra” since its purpose is to increase women’s sex drives. This is generating the standard goodness-graciousing by professional worrywarts according to the mathematical formula: “Drugs bad, sex bad, drugs to the power of sex exponentially bad.” Yet the whole debate might be moot because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet decided whether or not it will allow flibanserin to be sold in the US.
“The FDA won’t allow it.” We hear that a lot here in the land of brave rugged individuals and the world’s only country to ban those candy “Kinder Surprise” eggs, lest we all choke on the little toys within). Yet the FDA, when founded, was not supposed to tell American citizens what they could legally consume, but to enforce honesty and integrity in food and drug claims and manufacture.
Look at any 19th-century medicinal catalogue and you’ll see why that was necessary. In addition to the occasional new wonder drug like aspirin, which really did work as advertised, you’d find mostly snake-oil claims: “Mrs Jennifer’s Non-Addictive Opium Cordial makes you look 20 years younger and immune to cancer.” It’s one thing to outlaw fraudulent claims, or ban the use of known poisons in items meant for internal consumption, but the authorities went too far: rather than merely enforce standards in claims and ingredient lists, they decide on behalf of Americans what we can and cannot have.
And my roommate and I might yet get arrested, if he buys pseudoephedrine four days from now and someone, somewhere, someday decides our address has consumed more than its legal share.
I’m not out to hurt a soul. I just want to breathe with my mouth shut and stop oozing from facial orifices, and I had to register myself with corporate and law enforcement databases to do it.
I’m not just sick from a cold; I’m sick of the ever-growing number of hoops innocent citizens must jump through to ease enforcement of the ever-growing draconian laws. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to blow trumpet noises into enormous handfuls of tissue paper.