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Take Caution Selling Medicine Bottles Says DEA
by Bob Brooke

 

Old medicine bottles with contents still in them.Youngstown, Ohio, dentist Dr. Robert J. Durick found out the hard way that dealing in old medicine bottles can have its consequences. On November 5, 2002, eBay notified this prolific seller that he had been suspended from buying or selling on their Web site for 30 days because he supposedly violated their policy of not selling narcotics, steroids or other controlled substances on their Web site. So Durick is suing eBay for $2 million.

This seemingly isolated incident raises some questions about selling any sort of containers, mostly for their value to advertising collectors, that contain some of their original contents–old medicine bottles, household cleaners, insect sprays, poisons, etc. If a container still has some of its contents, are those contents dangerous or harmful to humans? If so, and a human is injured or killed from ingesting the contents of an old medicine bottle, for instance, who is responsible? And what does this have to do with the heightened terrorism awareness since 9/11?

It’s the Law
According to Alan I. Roberts, president of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council in Washington, DC, laws governing the sale of containers with flammable, corrosive or poisonous contents have been on the books since 1908, so they haven’t been enacted since 9/11, only more strongly enforced. "The regulatory system places the burden on shippers to properly classify flammable, corrosive, or poisonous materials they ship or to determine that they do not meet any of the nine hazard classes as defined by the regulations," he said. "While it’s likely most of the bottles dealers and collectors are handling don’t contain hazardous materials, I believe some will if, for example, they contain medicine."

Cough syrups and other medicines often contain alcohol which is classed as a flammable liquid. Roberts pointed out that investigators make little distinction in regard to risk when they discover violations of the regulations–and the penalties may be severe.

Nationally, it’s the responsibilities of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to regulate toxic substances and investigate violations. Rebecca A. Frierson, a pharmaceuticals collectibles specialist with Liberty Antiques and Auctions of Newbury, South Carolina, who has sold over 700,000 old bottles, always has a DEA agent come in to inspect items before she they go on the auction block. "One of the first things I do when I go into a new state to do an auction, is contact the local DEA office and that state’s Department of Environmental Control and invite them to my auction site so that they can go through and identify any items that may be in violation of the law," she said. "Though environmental laws vary from state to state, the DEA law is national."

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which became the legal foundation of the government's fight against the abuse of drugs and other substances. This law is a consolidation of numerous laws regulating the manufacture and distribution of narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids, and chemicals used in the illicit production of controlled substances.

Dangerous Substances
The CSA places all substances, regulated under existing federal law, into one of five schedules. The law bases this placement on a substance's medicinal value, harmfulness, and potential for abuse or addiction. The DEA, which enforces this law, has posted these schedules on its Web site. Schedule I is reserved for the most dangerous drugs that have no recognized medical use, while Schedule V is the classification used for the least dangerous drugs. The DEA is most concerned about the drugs in Schedules 1 and 2, consisting of 185 drugs and their derivatives, such as codeine, morphine, coca, cocaine, meperidine (Demerol), methadone, opium, pentobarbital, methylphenidate (Ritalin). The lists include barbituates, amphedimines, cannabis, anti-psychotics, transquilizers, muscle relaxers, and cough medicines.

An old bottle of syphillis remedyUnder the law, the DEA may begin an investigation of a drug at any time based upon information received from law enforcement laboratories, state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies, or other sources of information.

"There’s a great concern about substances getting out and made into dangerous cocktails, especially from cough medicines," Frierson said. "The DEA doesn’t care if a substance is 200 years old, especially if it’s included in their Schedule II list. I’ve seen them go to antique shows, and if they find dealers selling that kind of stuff, they shut them down."

Frierson noted that rules are a bit more lax for poisons, such as strychnine and a deadly product called mercury bi-chloride, formerly used as an anti-syphilitic and to clean wounds. "This is nasty stuff, contains heavy metal, and is very dangerous." Though she can sell bottles containing these substances, they most likely fall within eBay’s category of "controlled substances."

However, since 9/11, the DEA has pulled poisons like cyanide, which Frierson frequently finds in another, more deadly, form, off the market. Now she’s much more reluctant to put certain substances on the market.

"Most pharmacies have expired stock and keep it in a special place," said Frierson. "When I start sorting through a pile of drugs in an old pharmacy, the drugs get older and older as I get towards the bottom. That’s where I usually find the earlier ones."

Frierson also said that many more drugs have to be destroyed. She personally goes through all the items in a sale and hand touches all the bottles to make sure they have no contents. "There’s no problem selling the bottles as long as they’re empty," she said. "And there’s still significant collector value to a bottle without contents. There’s also a market for bottles with contents."

Distribution Regulations
The CSA also creates a closed system of distribution for those authorized to handle controlled substances. The cornerstone of this system is the registration of all individuals and companies authorized by the DEA to handle controlled substances. Registrants must maintain complete and accurate inventories and records of all transactions involving controlled substances, as well as security for the storage of controlled substances.

In the collectibles market, this goes both ways. Frierson said that the narcotics law requires the substance in question must be deleted from the seller’s inventory upon shipment and added to the buyer’s inventory upon receipt of shipment. Each must also have a secure storage facility. And both must be licensed by the DEA to traffic in controlled substances. Any seller or dealer and buyer or collector caught not obeying these requirements faces a heavy fine or imprisonment.

Frierson uses reference books to see how a substance is or has been used. This is especially important for substances no longer in the Physician’s Desk Reference or for poisons listed in Merck Manual. The above-mentioned mercury bi-chloride is a good example. Widely used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s no longer listed since it’s not used by doctors today. "I constantly see information about sales through other auctioneers who don’t have a clue as to what they’re selling," added Frierson. "I worry about substances people will use to get high or perhaps die from."

What Collectors Collect
According to Frierson, collectors usually collect bottles made before 1920 for their shapes and those made after 1920 for what the bottle may have contained. For example, there’s a market for bottles containing substances with notoriety such as qualudes, which the government outlawed because of their abuse. A bottle that contained them is worth $15 to $50 for the nostalgic value alone, especially to those who abused them. One person Frierson knows keeps Skittles in a former qualude bottle on his desk.

Some collectibles, like cereal boxes, are worth more with their contents unopened, but this isn’t so with old medicine bottles.

Often collectors look beyond the bottle or the contents and to the acquisition of one company over another such as Mallencrot acquired by Merck and Co., which used to be Merck, Sharp and Dohme. And before being Mallencrot, it was Powers and Weightman and before that there was a Powers and a Weightman– all significant drug companies. A very early pre-acquisition bottle can be worth substantially more, according to Frierson. Some bottles are worth more from the companies they came from than the contents they contained.

Frierson is annoyed at eBay since she sold the empty bottles to Durick in the first place. One did have a little phenobarbital in it, and Durick admits that it was his mistake for selling it that way. "Bob Durick wouldn’t do anything risky," said Frierson. "He normally doesn’t sell any phenobarbital or barbiturates and neither do I."

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