Felony Cold Pills
by Ari Armstrong, February 8, 2002
Sometimes the logic of a set of beliefs leads to conclusions -- and accompanying actions -- so absurd as to cause any rational person to step back and rethink the wisdom of the accepted beliefs.
But nobody ever accused most legislators of being rational. If a bill sponsored by State Senator Ken Gordon is passed, it will be a felony in some cases to possess the cold medicine available at any corner grocery store.
A felony. For cold pills. Punishable for up to 12 years in prison. For cold pills.
(The bill originally created a Class 5 Felony, with a prison range of 1-3 years, but according to a staff person in Gordon's office, he intends to offer an amendment increasing the penalty to a Class 3 Felony, with a prison range of 4-12 years.)
The problem is, some people use cold pills to make an illegal drug, methamphetamine. "Meth" is the new satan, the great evil in Colorado communities. Perhaps coincidentally, meth has become particularly villainous during this gubernatorial reelection year.
But cold pills? A felony? I mean, practically all of us own cold medicine. So what is that fine line that separates each of us from a 12-year prison sentence?
That fine line is "intent." It's ok to own cold medicine, you see, but if you intend to use it make meth, then "pack an illegal cold pill, pack your bags for prison," I believe the expression goes.
Intent. As in, what you are planning to do. The content of your own mind. And this "intent" is what can land you in prison. For 12 years. The obvious question that any rational person would ask is, "Who gets to figure out intent?" Does Ken Gordon intend to run a phone line from every police station and court room to 1-800-PSYCHIC?
How do police make drug busts? Often it is by relying on allegations of drug dealers, looking for a reduced sentence or just some extra cash. "Yea, I saw Johnnie buy four boxes of cold pills at Safeway just this morning! And he said he 'intended' to make meth with it! Can I have my plea bargain now?"
If Johnnie is really lucky, the police will not murder him when they bust into his apartment in a no-knock raid. I can almost hear our politicians sobbing: "If Johnnie just didn't have those cold pills, he would still be alive today."
Today, both Safeway and King Soopers stores issue shopping cards that track customer purchases. Will the police now be perusing our shopping records, monitoring our purchases of cold medicine? Will credit card transactions also be targeted by the new search warrants? And what if somebody -- be it your neighbor or a police officer -- just doesn't like you and wants to make your life hell?
Cold pills. Felony. 12 years.
Of course, well-connected rich people will seldom be targeted by the new law. Oh, no: they can afford lawyers! They have friends on the city councils and in the legislature. Just ask Jeb Bush's daughter: a few well-placed phone calls by the appropriate political master can have a profound impact on the interpretation of "intent." Felony, shmelony.
In John Sanko's February 7 article in the Rocky Mountain News about Gordon's bill SB50 (an article, incidentally, that takes up 14 column inches of text without spending so much as a millimeter to discuss possible problems with the bill), quotes Terry Curry, a detective from the El Paso Sheriff's Department who testified in favor of the bill. Curry said, "Right now you can purchase anything you need at Wal-Mart and Kmart for as little as $50 to create an ounce of methamphetamine."
Think about that. You can go down and spend fifty bucks at Wal-Mart and become an instant felon, depending on how the authorities evaluate your "intent." Gordon is worried about "precursors" used to manufacture meth. We should be more worried about "precursor" laws that will be used to manufacture a fascist state.
Even if one believes methamphetamine is a scourge upon society, even if one believes it should be fought with police powers, still there is no reason to support a bill making a felony out of cold medicine possession. The potential for abuse far outweighs any possible gain. If police believe a person is going to convert cold pills into meth, is it too much to ask that they get hard proof of the conversion?
The deeper critique, of course, points out that the exploding meth labs that so concern Governor Owens and his lackeys in the legislature are a direct result of the policies of drug war politicians. But for drug prohibition, methamphetamine would probably never even have become a distributed drug. Certainly we would not see any more exploding meth labs if prohibition were repealed.
Senator Gordon made a very interesting comment that Sanko reported. "My son, a senior in high school, has friends who are addicted to [methamphetamine]. It's a very terrible, very addictive drug." So already Gordon has admitted that prohibition efforts have failed. But notice Gordon's response to this social problem. Does he go to his son's school or to the parents of his son's friends? No. Instead, he goes to the capitol building to pass yet another drug war law that he already knows is destined to fail. How pathetic.
Word on the street has it that Gordon ran the meth bill in order to kiss up to Owens. In exchange, Owens was supposed to help -- or at least not harm -- Gordon's bill to slightly reduce the felony penalties for some types of drug possession. Gordon is likely to learn, as gun owners have learned, that Owens is a man of the political winds, not a man of his word. Am I guessing at Gordon's "intent?" Yes, but at least my guesses are linked neither to a felony for Gordon nor to a 12-year prison sentence.
Milton Friedman wrote to Bill Bennett expressing his concerns about the war on drugs. The great economist warned, "The path you propose of more police, more jails, use of the military in foreign countries, harsh penalties for drug users, and a whole panoply of repressive measures can only make a bad situation worse. The drug war cannot be won by those tactics without undermining the human liberty and individual freedom that you and I cherish."
That of course brings us to the Republicans, who claim to support freedom, personal responsibility, and limited government, but almost always vote for the aggrandized state. Sanko reports, "Gordon delayed a vote on SB50 until Monday [February 11] to work on an amendment, but it appeared likely the measure will be sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee."
So on Monday we'll see what the Republicans on Gordon's Judiciary committee are made of. I have no great hopes for either Ken Arnold or Jim F. Dyer, who don't even pretend they're concerned about liberty in such matters. I'm not sure what to expect of the other Democrats, Doug Linkhart and Sue Windels. Democrats sometimes claim to care about civil rights. That leaves Senator Mark Hillman. So what'll it be, Senator: another big-government, intrusive, abusive law that creates the thought-crime of buying cold pills with the wrong "intent?" Or will it be limited government and sober restraint based on the advice of Milton Friedman? Lady Liberty will be watching with interest.