The Cost of Being “Insufficiently Suspicious”

CVS Pharmacy was recently fined $75,000,000.00 for making a major contribution to “the illicit methamphetamine trade.” According to Reason Magazine, $75 Million is now the largest civil penalty ever assessed for a violation of the controlled substance act. However, CVS did not agree to pay the penalty because they ignored a pharmacist’s decision to smuggle drugs, or because company trucks transported meth, rather the DEA said the company was “insufficiently suspicious” of customers buying cold and allergy medications with ingredients used to make meth.
This lawsuit establishes a new legal order in which the government forces private companies to be the police and then fines them for not doing a good enough job. Even if CVS customers were buying these medicines too frequently and using drug trade slang in the drugstore, does that mean that CVS has an obligation to detect lawbreakers? This is really just another version of a classic Samaritan’s dilemma.
Imagine a man, Bob, ambitiously jumps into a pool. Shortly after hitting the water, Bob realizes he cannot swim, and begins to drown. A by-stander, Billy, walks by the pool and notices the drowning man. Does Billy have an obligation to save Bob? If the question is, does Billy have a moral obligation, most of us say yes. If Billy cannot swim, then we say he just has an obligation to throw a life preserver into the pool, yell for help, or do some other low cost action to save a fellow man. But what if he doesn’t? What is his legal obligation?
In most States a by-stander has a legal obligation in only two situations. 1- When there is a “Special relationship” between the two parties. For example, parents are legally obligated to rescue their minor children, and policemen, along with other emergency workers, have a general duty to rescue the public while on the job. The only other time a by-stander has the legal obligation to rescue a person is when the by-stander himself has created a hazardous situation causing the other party to fall into peril.
Clearly, Billy does not have a legal obligation to save Bob, but most would say that the low cost to Billy of throwing a life-preserver or calling for help means that his moral obligation remains. Why would our legal standards differ from our moral ones? Well, the burden of proof needed to hold a by-stander to such a standard would be quite high, and thus difficult to establish in court. A judge would need to know whether the costs to the Samaritan were low enough to create an obligation, so the prosecution would need to prove that Billy had a clear opportunity to save Bob, and that Billy knowingly chose not to. Additionally, the judge would need to know that the risks (costs) involved in saving Bob were minimal, since we cannot require by-standers to lay down their lives every time they encounter a stranger in need.
CVS is the by stander and society is drowning in methamphetamine abuse. CVS did not create this situation and it has no special relationship to the rest of society. So why does it have a legal obligation to try and stop it?
Any justification for this prosecution must rest on the judgment that the costs faced by CVS to stop the practice of using over the counter medication in the production of meth are significantly, and predictably, less than the benefits gained. The effects of methamphetamine are truly disastrous to users, their families, and their communities, so it seems trivial to ask if CVS should try to suppress the sale of meth ingredients to known drug dealers. But a second look reveals that the costs are potentially very high and the benefits non-existent.
CVS will probably create a training program educating all employees about “drug slang.” Additionally, it is reasonable to predict that CVS will develop an even more extensive and burdensome regulatory procedure for buying over the counter drugs commonly used to make meth. Pretty soon you could be filling out at 14 page form for routine cold medicine.
Of course, once a CVS employee refused to sell Sudafed to a customer who did not plan to use it to make meth, the company faces potential liability and discrimination law suits. This means that CVS will very rarely refuse to sell the drug and only under certain conditions that are well publicized to the consumer, giving drug dealers a clearly defined set of rules that are easy to follow. Since drug dealers are not stupid, the only result will be longer lines and angry sick people with no reduction in the purchase of OTC medication for use in meth production.
While the purpose of this new precedent is clearly to give the people with the most opportunity, sales clerks, an incentive to stop drug production, the result is an unfair and ineffective burden on an innocent by-stander; actually all of us innocent by-standers that are CVS customers. Ultimately, legitimate CVS customers will be the ones that drown in the pool while CVS is forced to save the man who chose to jump in. Meanwhile those in the meth business will keep buying over the counter drugs, just without using drug slang.

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