Anti-Meth Restrictions on Cold Medicine Snaring Convenience Store Clerks

Press Release August 9, 2005
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Tony Newman at (646) 355-5384

Prosecutors across the country are using broadly written drug laws to prosecute convenience store clerks who sell cold medicine, lighter fluid and other products that can be used to make methamphetamine. At issue are state and federal laws making it illegal for store clerks to sell legal products to customers if they have reason to believe they will be used to make illegal drugs. In a growing trend, undercover informants are buying legal products, making vague drug-related references at the check-out counter, and then arresting the cashiers. In many cases the store clerks do not speak perfect English and fail to understand the slang terms being used.

“Convenience store clerks have become the latest causalities in the war on drugs, “said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Selling lighter fluid, cold medicine and other legal items shouldn’t get someone decades in prison.”

In northwest Georgia, for instance, 49 convenience store owners and clerks were recently arrested. Of the 49 people arrested, 43 of them were of Indian descent, and the rest employed by Indian store owners. For many, English is their second language and it appears likely they misunderstood the government informants and did not understand the medicine was intended to be used for drugs. One reported saying he needed the medicine “to finish my cook up,” slang whose meaning most likely escaped many of the immigrants arrested.

In Phoenix, Arizona, dozens of Middle Eastern convenience store owners were recently arrested for selling “Mini-thins,” another legal, over-the-counter medication that contains a precursor for methamphetamine. Some of the 39 people arrested may have known they were selling items used to make methamphetamine. Many, however, faced language barriers and likely did not understand what undercover officers were saying.

Not only do store clerks face arrest for selling legal items like cold medicine and lighter fluid, they face extremely harsh penalties. In Georgia, some of the clerks face up to 20 years in prison. In contrast, the maximum penalty for selling alcohol to minors is only 60 days in jail. The maximum penalty for selling tobacco to minors is one year in jail.

“Putting store clerks in jail and breaking up families does nothing to deal with the problems associated with methamphetamine abuse, “said Bill Piper. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost to imprison these clerks would be better spent on drug treatment.”

Advocates for treatment cite a voter-approved initiative in California as a better approach to dealing with methamphetamine. With more than 19,000 methamphetamine users entering treatment annually under the initiative, no other statewide program in the nation has offered treatment to more methamphetamine users.


A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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