The Magazine

Nothing to Sneeze At

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Oh, sure, there’s enough particulate matter in the New York City air to turn a white shirt gray by the end of the workday. And a couple whiffs of a narrow West Side cross street tightly enclosed by high-rises on a hot summer day when the trash is overdue for pickup could put even the strongest stomach to the test.

Nothing to Sneeze At

Nevertheless, blessed be the New York air: When I moved there after college, my longtime seasonal allergies were gone within a month. At the time, I thought I had at last outgrown them—a breakthrough for someone who’d been taking allergy pills since he was a, well, snot-nosed kid. 

Only when I moved to Washington a few years later and the runny nose, watery eyes, dry cough, and headache returned did the truth become clear. I get it, thought I. It’s not that I outgrew my allergies. It’s that Manhattan doesn’t have plants. 

I suppose I could have worked myself into at least a low-grade wheeze if I’d spent more time in Central Park. But the last thing I had moved to New York to do was go to Central Park. I had no use for a green island of tranquility. I was trying to escape tranquility.

There’s no avoiding the greenery in Washington. The nation’s capital is a garden city, and the winds diffuse the pollen through even the most citified neighborhoods. So it was back to the allergy pills. 

Eventually, my medication of choice went over-the-counter, news of which I welcomed joyfully—until I realized that it was actually going to cost me more, since my health insurance would no longer be paying for any of it. At least there was the convenience of not having to go through the pharmacist.

What a success the over-the-counter move was. More allergy sufferers had more access to more relief than ever before. The product was moving off the shelves so fast it seemed the manufacturers could barely keep pace with demand. I was hardly alone in seeking and finding relief.

Unfortunately, it was apparently not relief from allergies that many of the purchasers of my brand of pill were seeking. Claritin-D’s distinctive ingredient is pseudoephedrine sulfate. “Pseudo,” as it is known in certain subcultures, is a precursor to methamphetamine. Many of the pills flying off the shelves were going to illicit labs, where they were getting cooked into crystal meth. 

Drugstores would find themselves beset by wild-eyed crankheads with rotting teeth seeking to buy pills in quantity. Or they’d shoplift them. Or break in after-hours to strip the shelves bare for transfer in bulk to the local basement lab. 

Eventually, the government figured this out. Although still over-the-counter in the precise sense that you don’t need a prescription (and your insurance company isn’t paying a nickel), pseudoephedrine products moved back to the pharmacy. To buy them, you have to produce an ID and register your purchase either in a paper logbook or electronically, depending on the tech savvy of the drugstore. The government also strictly regulates the amount you can buy, 3.6 grams for a 15-day supply. The electronic recordkeeping will tell the pharmacist to turn you away if you try to exceed your quota. 

As it happens, I have a kid who takes the same allergy pill I do. But she’s under 18, so she can’t buy it. Which means, in effect, that I buy my supply, and my wife buys my kid’s. (Good thing the missus uses a non-pseudo based allergy pill herself, otherwise we’d be, ah, cooked.) But this procurement regimen requires precise calibration: If you miss by a day, you’re out of pills, and you can’t catch up. Of course in high allergy season, the drugstores run out. Too bad. You can’t stock up in advance.

Thus began my life on the gray side of the law. No, it’s not quite “Breaking Bad,” the AMC black comedy about an uptight high school chemistry teacher who learns he has cancer and starts cooking meth in order to leave a nest egg for his family. But still. 

Those electronic logs? They’re regional. If you’re traveling out of town, buy up. Those paper logs at the family pharmacies? Nobody checks them against electronic logs. So if CVS turns you down because 15 days haven’t elapsed since your last score, go someplace with paper record-keeping.

That’s all I’m willing to share today. But if you’re running the local meth lab, let me just tell you this: Be careful. A fed-up, bleary-eyed hay fever sufferer may be on his way to your lab to steal your meth and turn it back into Claritin-D.

Tod Lindberg


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