Over-criminalization of cold medicines

A grandmother of triplets in Indiana recently discovered what it means to be on the receiving end of a bad law and an overzealous, uncaring prosecutor.  Sally Harpold faces jail and a criminal record not for child abuse, extortion, or grand theft auto.  No; she’s being prosecuted by Vermillion County District Attorney Nina Alexander for buying two small boxes of cold medicine within one week.  This truly is law enforcement run amok.

Thanks to Republican President George W. Bush, who signed legislation in 2006 that “strengthened” the USA PATRIOT Act, the federal government now regulates the sale and purchase of all forms of cold medicines and related drugs that contain pseudoephedrine.  The reason for this chapter in the “Nanny State” is that a relatively small number of individuals were purchasing large quantities of Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine-containing, over-the-counter medications, to use in the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine, a Controlled Substance.  Rather than working to improve its ability to identify and prosecute such law breakers, the federal and most state governments decided it was easier to simply inconvenience every otherwise law-abiding citizen, by prohibiting over-the-counter sales of the popular medications, and creating data bases of who purchases the drugs, how much they purchase, and when they purchase them.

Inconvenience is one thing.  Ciminal prosecution is quite another.

While most prosecutors in most states will prosecute pseudoephedrine sales violations only when there is an intent to circumvent the law by purchasing quantities of the medicines in order to produce methamphetamine, there are exceptions.  Because Indiana’s pseudoephedrine law does not specify that purchases of such drugs in excess of the allowable quantities (3.6 grams in one week) must be made with the intent to produce meth in order to constitute a criminal violation, there is room for the oversealous prosecutor to play “gotcha” with unsuspecting grandmothers.

The particular prosecutor who went after Grandma Sally (and others who similarly run afoul of the overly broad law) quite proudly defended her ridiculous exercise of prosecutorial discretion by noting that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” that her hands were tied and she was simply enforcing the law. 

While this particular case does not appear to represent the norm (most prosecutors possess more common sense and compassion than does Nina Alexander of Vermillion County, Indiana) it does illustrate with some degree of clarity what can happen to the average, law-abiding citizen when bad laws and bad prosecutors converge in a perfect storm of over-criminalization.

28 comments Add your comment

Kris Langville

October 9th, 2009
6:16 am

Thank you for this article. I wrote several letters to my legislatures when this was in the works–to no avail, obviously. This is exactly what I saw coming down the pipeline.


October 9th, 2009
6:48 am

I have written and called everyone I know to beg them to let the Patriot Act die a deserved death. I voted for people that I thought would listen, but no one does. Don’t people see how horrible this is? This is only one instance of how this foists the responsibility of law enforcement off on the public. If you are a banker and your customer is making “unusual” transactions, you are supposed to notify the government. What business is it of the bank or the government what a person does with his/her money? But, if the banker doesn’t do that, guess who can go to jail? The Patriot Act was the most egregious gutting of the Constitution that has ever occurred and we seem powerless to make it go away!

Ryan T

October 9th, 2009
7:37 am

It’s pretty tough to blame Bush on this one, Mr. Barr. There are many things for which he can be blamed (federal spending, for one), but I think this is a stretch. You even mention in the article that its an Indiana law for which she is being prosecuted. While I am all for reducing the size and reach of the federal government, this example seems to show that there are issues at all levels of government. This is extremely unfortunate for this woman, and I pray that reason is applied to give this woman her life back.

P.S. This prosecutor should be immediately fired for wasting time and tax dollars on theis silly case.


October 9th, 2009
7:53 am

Mr. Barr,

While I agree this is a silly law and goes beyond the control that the Patriot Act was indeed intended for, I do see the merit in having this law in the first place. For one, it keeps the drugs out of those under the age of 18 who are infact using them to get high. Two, it can alert the athorities to those who are making large purchases to make illegal drugs for sale. However, I don’t feel that we are hearing every thing regarding this case as it seems a bit fishy to me. New prosecutor who just pasted the bar looking to make a name for him/her self in going after this Grandmother maybe? The judge should review the case, take into account the age of this women and dismiss it and apologize for wasting this womens time and for getting her all worked up. I know I would be just in a tizzy from all of this.

Just my thoughts on the situation as a mother who catches everything and fears having to get medication because of this silly rule.


October 9th, 2009
8:16 am

When you say two small boxes got her in trouble, it’s obvious this rule is poorly written. Secondly the prosecutor should be fired for this egregious waste of taxpayer money. Finally, this has nothing to do with George Bush and you should be above making such baseless accusations. The intent of the law was good, but the execution isn’t in his hands.

3rd Party Guy

October 9th, 2009
8:23 am

“…perfect storm of over-criminalization.”?

That’s putting it mildly. People have become mindless sheep just as corrupt politicians like it. Until something like this happens to enough people, nothing will change. No one cares because it didn’t happen to them personally. Bad laws constantly get passed because people no longer care about other peoples’ rights. So the cycle continues; vote for one the same two crappy choices every election. The pendulum swings left, then right, then back again. During each swing, more freedom is lost. It’s tyranny, nothing less.

My experience with this insanity? One weekend, both my small child and I were sick. My wife went to the store to get two types of medicine. Denied. One gets medicine, one doesn’t. Go government. Idiots all!

Wake up sheeple.


October 9th, 2009
8:25 am

Another example of a brain dead prosecutor running for higher office.

Granny should demand a jury trial so the jury can nullify the prosecutor’s case.


October 9th, 2009
8:31 am

After reading about this case and many more like it, is there any doubt in any sensible person’s mind about what is going to happen when we get government-run health care. This ain’t your grandpappy’s America.

kentucky dawg

October 9th, 2009
8:34 am

This prosecutor should be let go for the wasting of valuable time and money. It almost never happens and that is exactly why these type of prosecutors feel so bullet proof.


October 9th, 2009
8:37 am

I’m not sure when we changed our focus in this country from interdiction and assistance to punishment and imprisonment but it hasn’t worked….Why Bob are we continuously pursuing a remedy that doesn’t work…and consequently thing by putting more money into it that the outcome will change..?? We aren’t a people who think of each other as “one nation” anymore except at the Olympics or whatever…it’s a shame…


October 9th, 2009
9:21 am


“Another example of a brain dead prosecutor running for higher office.

Granny should demand a jury trial so the jury can nullify the prosecutor’s case.”

Good idea but, unfortunantly, there is a disturbing trend of judges ORDERING the jury against nullification.

Mrs. Norris

October 9th, 2009
9:23 am

The American people never met a law they didn’t like. So sad, once such a proud and independent people. They really ought to go ahead and make it official and become the People’s Republic of America. The citizens will feel so safe and secure knowing the government has it all under control.


October 9th, 2009
10:36 am

Was it not foreseeable that this so called “Patriot Act” would become the most misused and abused act ever foisted on this country? This act needs to be repealed immediately. This act has totally undermined the Constitution of this nation and has little to do with the “War on Terror”. It is no more than the document cited to wage total and all out war on we the people. This document was written with the idea that every single one of us is the enemy of the state. You can see this close to home in the attitudes of your local police departments who no longer protect and serve, but intimidate and harrass. Enough is enough.


October 9th, 2009
11:12 am

As an allergy sufferer who gets the best results with pseudoephrine products, I have decided a number of times for forego buying them to avoid the hassle of signing my life away at the prescription counter. The possibility that I could be arrested for buying two boxes in one week is scary. All I want to do is breathe normally.


October 9th, 2009
11:17 am

Vermillion County does not seem to have progressed beyond fax or phone for contact purposes so I couldn’t congratulate District Attorney Nina Alexander on her total lack of common sense.I will phone though as her actions should not go unnoticed by the public.She should at least know that people are watching.Please look up her number under Vermillion County,Indiana,District Attorney ,and give her a ring .


October 9th, 2009
11:49 am

Nina Alexander is doing EXACTLY what she should do. There should be no discretion exercised by prosecutors. Its the job of the legislatures to write clear, concise, reasonable laws. Otherwise the law would be whatever the government wanted it to be at any particular time, which would lead to far, far worse results than we have here. The legislature should change this law pronto, and hopefully it will!

Bob's A Cherry Picker

October 9th, 2009
12:09 pm

Hi Bob

Some more solid cherry picking on your part. With about 5 minutes of work I was able to find a story in the Tribune-Star that described the local county’s efforts to deal with an alarming meth epidemic. As described in this story, the process behind the incident that you refer to as one of the “nanny state” is acutally a local one.

Your propensity to take isolated incidents of gevious behaviour and generalize them across all levels of governance without regard to the specifics of the case lead me to believe you have an agenda. That’s great for a PR hack, but bad if you’re really trying to make a reasoned argment.

Here’s the story: http://www.tribstar.com/archivesearch/local_story_162232751.html


October 9th, 2009
12:16 pm

In response to MadMommy:

If you think laws like the Patriot Act, or laws that restrict sales of cold medicine keeps kids under 18 from getting high you are deluding yourself. If someone regardless of age wants to get high by abusing a chemical substance, they will. Whether it is meth from sudafed tablets or your prescription pills in the medicine cabinet.


October 9th, 2009
12:17 pm

This is the problem with so much legislation. Just think of all the business the highest number of a professionally trained group represented in Congress is creating for themselves, lawyer legislators, with the thousands of pages of health care legislation, much of which could become law.

joe matarotz

October 9th, 2009
12:39 pm

As far as lawyers also being the legislators who write these laws,

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

(Look it up. It’s Latin.)

Hillbilly Deluxe

October 9th, 2009
3:17 pm

“ignorance of the law is no excuse,”

But what about the ignorance of those who passed and enforce this law and quite a few others?

Joe Matarotz:

I was unable to translate what you wrote. Is it something like, “who protects us from those who protect us”? If so, a very valid question.


October 9th, 2009
4:43 pm

Pot stirrer. Barr none.


October 9th, 2009
5:30 pm

Who guards the guardians?


October 9th, 2009
7:39 pm

When I got sick last year I found it to be a huge pain to get the medicine. It also wasted about 5 minutes of the pharmacists time just to enter all the data in. But something I found odd is that the prescription drug I was taking that also contained pseudoephedrine, never was a problem to get. it was only a problem to get once I had to get a new brand because of patent suits (another troublesome topic) making the prescription product available.


October 10th, 2009
12:40 pm

Criminalization is coming with this administration if you believe in God, oppose Obama on anything, oppose the media on anything, or do not follow any of their destructive laws.

What Barr mentioned in this article is a shape of things to come.

Ken Stepp

October 10th, 2009
12:57 pm

One of the problems that we have is that elected officials pushing laws through without a cause and affect study. This is a bad law and that is a District Attorney asleep at the switch. With all the cutbacks in services the DA offices are jammed with cases. Here in Gwinnett the cutbacks have been brutal. To take the time from real crime and dedicate it to punishing a mom just trying to care for her children as best she can is shameful. I know how this works. The DA will instead of a trial offer her a “DEAL”. She’ll think she has to take it because of the threatening manor of the DA. The DA acts like its a victory and this poor mom gets a conviction, and probation. The DA obviously doesn’t care about her as a person or this wouldn’t be happening. Its sad to see these people turn into monsters after they’re in office too long. They will damage a family forever and not think a thing about it. They have no heart ,soul ,or real purpose. Just a false perception of being right. Just sad. I wish this mother all the best. Its just shameful.


October 10th, 2009
7:09 pm

I really don’t think a blog that promotes the abuse of meth amphetamine is appropriate at all. Isn’t there an editor at the AJC that has to see this drivel before it’s posted?


October 24th, 2009
9:08 am

Let’s not forget that YOU voted for the Patriot Act Bob, and without reading it.

Maybe you should have taken out your constitutional oath and read IT before your vote. Might have made a difference.