Assignment 7

Meth labs flourishing due to loophole

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

After years of decline the number of methamphetamine labs in California is on the rise again. Meth producers are taking advantage of a loophole in a 2005 federal law and now state officials are hoping to close it.

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In the Sierra Foothills meth labs are flourishing.

"We still have a lot of methamphetamine on the street," Jackie Long told ABC7. Long is with the State Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. He says the problem is that the main ingredient in some cold and allergy medicines is also the main ingredient used to make meth. It is called "pseudoephedrine."

In 2005 Congress tried to shut down meth labs by requiring pharmacists to keep pseudoephedrine behind the counter and limit customers to only one package a day. Despite the law, drug enforcement officers say meth manufacturers are still getting plenty of pseudoephedrine.

"This is what they bought all in one day," Long explained displaying some pills.

They call it "smurfing" when meth makers pay other people to buy pseudoephedrine for them.

"They go store after store after store. So, we'll follow these people to 20 different stores in one day. All they do is go in and buy one box and come out," Long explained.

Catching "smurfers" is like finding a needle in a hay-stack. Every time a package of pseudoephedrine is purchased, a customer has to show their ID and their name is recorded in a log at the pharmacy. The problem is the pharmacies do not share the information, so they have no way of knowing if a customer has already bought their daily limit somewhere else.

To catch someone who is buying too much, police have to compare logs from different pharmacies looking for suspects. That can mean pouring through thousands of pages.

"A lot of pharmacists mean well, but the log... they're allowing people to fill out the logs. And, these people, we're finding the names of people we know don't exist," Long said.

It is not just happening in rural California. Last year, narcotics investigators busted three people in East Palo Alto for smurfing. Investigators say the three were part of a ring that bought nearly 2,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine over a three-month period.

Kent Shaw says, "Pseudoephedrine is the Achilles heel of this issue."

Shaw is Assistant Chief of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. He says the only way to stop meth production in California is to make pseudoephedrine available only with a prescription. The state of Oregon has already done this. Now, legislation proposed in California might do the same.

Shaw says, "If you effectively control pseudoephedrine, you effectively control the domestic meth production issue."

Oregon credits the law with dramatically reducing the number of meth labs. In 2003, Oregon shut down 473 meth labs. Last year, they discovered just 21. There were 374 in California.

But, not everyone is convinced the Oregon law will work in California.

Drug makers and chain stores make a lot of money selling pseudoephedrine and they do not like the idea of requiring a prescription. The Consumer Health Care Products Association launched a campaign against it. The group claims prescriptions would raise Medicaid prices and flood emergency rooms.

"The reality is, the prices of pseudoephedrine in Oregon did not increase at all and they still remain that way today," said Shaw. "In fact, pseudoephedrine products are less expensive in Oregon than they are in California."

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores would not talk on camera, but has proposed an alternative. It suggests pharmacies share information. They say, "It will help provide law enforcement tools they need for easier access to information and streamlining record-keeping requirements for pharmacies."

The Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement says a central database of pharmacy logs could help, but it means they will need officers to go through them. The department is currently facing a $20 million budget gap. Long says cutting off the supply of pseudoephedrine is the only way to cut into the demand.

"We're not depriving customers of care. We're depriving people involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine, a compound that is poisoning our communities," he said.

On an unrelated note, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Wednesday that California will get almost $9 million dollars in stimulus money to fight Mexican drug cartels. $800,000 of that money will pay for an automated system that tracks drug traffickers in the Bay Area.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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