Catch A Cold
By A.D. Freudenheim  

1 August 2005

It didn’t take the Five Man Electrical Band’s hit song “Signs” to point out that our society has become overrun with notices of one kind or another – but in retrospect, it doesn’t hurt to have that reminder from 1971 hanging around, either, particularly as American culture continues to legislate and litigate itself into total gridlock.

Some of these signs are small nuisances, and not much more. This weekend, in Massachusetts, I went to pump gas, and noticed for the first time a dual-message sign on the gas pump, telling me both that according to state law it is illegal for me to put the gas gap under the lever in the hand-pump thus enabling the pump to continue pumping while I do something else (wash the windows, let’s say) – and that by order of the state fire marshal, I cannot top-off the gas in my tank. Once the pump clicks off automatically, I’m breaking state law to squeeze it again, to round up to the nearest dollar figure or to squeeze out that last 1/32nd of a gallon for my ride home. I knew the state had an interest in controlling my activities – all for my own benefit and protection, of course – but I consider this to be going a bit far. Still, if one chooses to follow this law it amounts only to a minor inconvenience.

By no means is this legislative problem limited to that great liberal bastion Massachusetts. The situation is just as fucked-up from New York to Texas, and anyone who thinks that the desire to legislate the behavior of Americans is limited to lefties would be wrong. It is just a question of which behaviors are being limited where, and by whom. In New York, for instance, consumers cannot generally buy their beer and their liquor from the same store: liquor stores have licenses to sell liquor (and wine), but not beer, while groceries and delis that can sell beer may not also sell liquor. I have yet to figure out what the protective benefit is for me, a consumer of both products living in a city filled with consumers of both products; instead, it just seems like a nuisance, since I thus have to go to two stores instead of one to complete my alcohol shopping. However, New Yorkers are a feisty bunch; more so than some of our co-nationals would otherwise acknowledge. When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently proposed a series of new laws designed to curb certain behaviors in the subways – like drinking coffee – we citizens said Enough!, and the proposed rules were withdrawn. Liquor stores can now open on Sundays, the final stake through the heart of Christian “blue laws.” Maybe some day, we will even see one-stop alcohol shopping; I’ll personally buy the mayor and the governor each one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer when that happens.

In Texas, the name “Lone Star state” is most definitely a reference to the star of the sheriff. A state that proclaims one should not mess with it, the meaning of that slogan is unambiguous for anyone who has spent much time there: there are police, everywhere. Local and regional police, state troopers, and all sorts of other armed officers of the law. I once even saw a police car that had the word “Constable” painted on the side in big red letters; who knew Texans even knew the word? Driving from Houston to Austin a few years ago – a long, fairly flat, and basically open stretch of land – I saw more cops waiting to nail speeders than I do on the average stretch of the crowded New Jersey Turnpike. The police drop by restaurants to say hello – even upscale restaurants – and they seem to lurk in parking lots and other places. My sense is the Republicans who live down in Texas don’t care what the citizens do, provided the citizens don’t do anything that offends the Republicans. And the GOP complains about the overly-controlling liberals?

It all comes together – the left and the right of American politics come together – in a set of bills being considered by the U.S. Congress as well as a number of state legislatures that would restrict access to certain kinds of over-the-counter cold medicines, in particular those containing pseudoephedrine, otherwise known as by its brand name, Sudafed. Yes, that’s right: this particular class of medicines, available over-the-counter for several decades to cold sufferers and allergic folks alike, is now being targeted by special legislation that proposes to restrict its sale, record the names of purchasers, and monitor the quantities purchased by any individual. Already in New York and Massachusetts, customers wishing to purchase more than 18 or 24 tablets have to go to the pharmacy counter to ask for them – and your total purchase quantity may be limited, or you may be forced to buy them on the spot, rather than carry them with you as you continue shopping.

The motivation for these laws is the big drug scourge sweeping the U.S.: methamphetamine, which can be produced in home labs in part using ingredients found in Sudafed. Methamphetamine is extremely addictive and very dangerous; there is little question about that; and regardless of my own feelings about the absurdity of American drug laws, it is one drug I would never wish to see anyone try. But as with most prohibited substances, increasing the scope of the restrictions around it only increases its market value, and sets off a series of other social problems, from theft (to pay for the drugs) to violence (within the drug dealers). Moreover, because methamphetamine can be made from a variety of household substances, restricting one specific substance – a legitimate over-the-counter cold remedy – has the effect of punishing a broad class of citizens who have broken no laws, in order to combat the apparently-unstoppable activities of some other, less legally-minded citizens.

Is going to the pharmacy counter that onerous? Perhaps not. But the intrusion is still unnecessary, obnoxious – and more importantly, a sad indicator of how our society, and our government, deems it acceptable to respond to new threats and problems that arise. Most of these laws are difficult to relax once implemented, except over long periods of time: store owners do not want to be sued or prosecuted, so outside threats ensure compliance, even when the internal threat of methamphetamine production may have disappeared. Meanwhile, those with runny noses wait unnecessarily on pharmacy lines, and follow-up the experience standing humbly by our gas tanks, even in the coldest winter, hands freezing, to dutifully pump our gas according to the wishes of some far-away state fire marshal. God bless America.

  Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.