Consumers who buy popular cold remedies in Riverside County would be required to give their names, addresses, and telephone and driver's license numbers to store clerks for law enforcement inspection under a sweeping rule aimed at illicit production of methamphetamine.
The ordinance, unanimously approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, will take effect if given final approval in the next 30 days.
The law would be the toughest of its kind in California. It comes as both Congress and the state Legislature are considering bills that would restrict the sale of medications, such as Sudafed and Nyquil, that contain the drug pseudoephedrine. It is among the ingredients used in makeshift laboratories to create methamphetamine.
Critics of the proposals say they would inconvenience law-abiding customers - and pose a threat to privacy - and might have only a minimal effect on the illicit drug traffic.
But in Riverside County, considered a major center of meth traffic, supporters said the measure was needed to stem a growing and often deadly drug problem.
"It's so important to let the residents know that we care about the meth problem, and we're going to do something about it," said Supervisor Jeff Stone, who sponsored the ordinance. "Anytime, anywhere, we are going to be proactive. That's the message that we want to get out."
Under the ordinance, customers who buy even one package of cold medication that includes pseudoephedrine, phenylpropanolamine or related compounds would be required to provide the personal information to a store clerk. Stores would be required to keep the logs available for law enforcement officials for three years.
Retailers who fail to comply with the requirements could face fines of up to $1,000. The ordinance would not penalize customers.
The measure drew quick criticism from some pharmacists.
"Imagine you're in line and you're sick and getting antibiotics and you have to wait behind three people who have to fill out a stupid log," said Doug Sturtz, the pharmacist at a Longs Drugs in Riverside.
"Can you imagine what's going to happen at Costco? Can you just imagine the lines?" Sturtz added.
Others objected to the potential impact on customer privacy and raised questions about the law's effectiveness, noting that major meth traffickers did not get their ingredients from drug stores and that buyers could easily purchase the same items in neighboring counties.
"I think there are real privacy issues about putting additional burdens on people who purchase over-the-counter drugs," said USC law professor Charles Whitebread.
"That's my privacy," said Diane Greagor, 46, a Riverside resident who works for the state Department of Corrections, as she walked out of a Walgreens drug store near downtown Riverside. "I don't know what they're going to be using this information for," she added. "It's not an illegal drug."
But U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been pushing measures in Congress to restrict sales of cold medicines that include pseudoephedrine, expressed support.
"I say hurray for Riverside," Feinstein said in Washington.
Feinstein and Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) unveiled an anti-meth bill Tuesday that would restrict access to such cold medicines nationwide.
Although she praised the Riverside County measure, Feinstein's bill, which is supported by the National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores, would preempt all such local rules in favor of national standards and would not be as burdensome on consumers.
Feinstein's proposal would require retailers and drug stores to place cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter. It would create alternative procedures for stores without pharmacies that sell over-the-counter remedies. It would also limit those buying such drugs to 7.5 grams a month. That is roughly equivalent to eight packets of 32 decongestant pills, rather than the one packet covered by the Riverside County ordinance.
Several major retailers, including Target, Wal-Mart and Ralphs, have voluntarily placed cold medications with pseudoephedrine behind the counter.
A spokesman for Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs and Food 4 Less, said company officials had not yet had a chance to review the Riverside County ordinance but that the company hoped the steps it already was taking would be sufficient to deter abuse.
"We're putting all our products with pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter," said spokesman Terry O'Neil. "In those stores where there is no pharmacy, we plan to take these products off the shelf and put them in cases similar to what stores do with cigarettes."
Methamphetamine is a cheap and powerfully addictive stimulant that is easily manufactured in clandestine laboratories with ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available.
Research shows that the drug can cause serious health and behavior problems, including memory loss, violence, psychotic behavior and possibly neurological damage.
Methamphetamine also suppresses sexual inhibitions, and health officials have said it is a major factor in an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, including hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director, said he was intrigued by Riverside County's idea but said it would take time to see how well it works.
"It's innovative. But I don't think we know at this point what's going to be effective," he said.
"Trying to limit the availability to legitimate users is a reasonable approach, even though it restricts personal freedoms to some extent," he said.
Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) introduced a bill in the Legislature this year that would have required logging similar information on buyers of cold medications.
Koretz said he dropped the logging provision after it drew concerns from other legislators who worried it would infringe on privacy and that maintaining it would require creating a state database.
"For me, it wasn't a big issue," he said, adding that he thought logging could create a significant deterrent.
"The big factor with meth users is a high degree of paranoia," he said. "If they know you're keeping their name and address and other information . it would make it a lot harder for them to make the purchases."
Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt in Riverside and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.
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