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Pseudoephedrine Becomes Focus Of State’s Meth Problem, Again

Recent data shows Indiana’s methamphetamine problem is getting worse. Terre Haute law enforcement officials are pushing for a different approach to the issue.

The Pills At The Center Of The Debate

Photo: Jessica Lucia (Flickr)

A 2005 law placed several restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter cold medicine used in the production of the illegal drug methamphetamine. The law requires consumers to show identification and sign a log book recording their purchase.

Recent data shows Indiana’s methamphetamine problem is getting worse. The Indiana State Police seized the highest number of methamphetamine labs in the state’s history in 2009 with more than 1,300 seizures.

Those numbers do not bode well for the progress of legislation lawmakers approved in 2005 that was meant to curb meth production. That law placed several restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter cold medicine used in the production of the illegal drug methamphetamine.

Pharmacy Logs Not Linked

The law requires consumers to show identification and sign a log book recording their purchase.  In theory, this was supposed to keep anyone from buying more than 100 pills, or 3 grams, per week as stipulated by the law.

However, because pharmacies’ log books are paper and not part of a computerized system, the logs between pharmacies are not linked.  This allows meth cooks to circumvent the law in a practice called smurfing where a meth cook moves from pharmacy to pharmacy in a given town buying their 100 pill allotment at each store.

Terre Haute Police Sergeant Chris Gallagher explains that cooks also hire other people to smurf, loading up a van of runners to drive between towns, and even across county and state lines purchasing pseudoephedrine at each stop.

“A Record Of Our Failures”

Gallagher did not mince words when discussing the current tracking system. “In perspective, I think of it as nothing more than a record of our failures,” Gallagher said.

He added it does little good for law enforcement to find the names of known meth offenders written on a log long after they have bought their pseudoephedrine and moved on.

Gallagher said the problem has to be cut off at the source and that source is pseudoephedrine because it is the only ingredient in methamphetamine that cannot be replaced.

Without Pseudoephedrine, or PSE, the meth is significantly less potent.  Gallagher explained that Indiana needs a more proactive system.

Oregon An Example

“Oregon has set the table for us basically in 2003 they had 473 meth labs,” Gallagher said.  “In 2005 they went to the tracking similar to what we’re doing here.  2007 they went to prescription only and they only had 18 meth labs.  To me that’s an amazing statistic because that’s an over 90% reduction.”

And, according to Lincoln County Oregon District Attorney Rob Bovett that reduction was not temporary. Meth production has stayed down in his state with only 13 lab seizures reported last year and only 3 to date this year.  Bovett said making pseudoephedrine prescription-only in Oregon has produced many rippling effects.

“Mexico, after seeing the results from Oregon, initially followed our lead and returned pseudoephedrine to prescription drug,” Bovett explained.  “Then they went one step further and banned pseudoephedrine entirely as did many of their neighboring states.”

Bovett claimed that this has forced Mexican drug trafficking organizations to revert back to an older method of cooking meth, one that produces a far inferior drug.

“So what we’ve seen here in the state of Oregon is sort of a positive double-whammy. We’ve eliminated the ability to cook meth locally and the potency of the meth on the streets in Oregon from the Mexican Drug-Trafficking organizations is incredibly weak.”  Bovett said.

Voluntary Prescriptions

Those are the kinds of results Gallagher wants to see in Vigo County.  So, he and representatives from other law enforcement agencies went to area pharmacies and asked them to only sell pseudoephedrine with a prescription.

There is no state law, so this was merely a request for voluntary action.  Ron Vencel with JR pharmacies signed on immediately.  He had started requiring a prescription at his own pharmacies months beforehand due to safety concerns.

“I don’t want to say that you don’t want those people in the store, but, you don’t,” Vencel said.  “You don’t feel comfortable for you employees, you don’t feel comfortable for your clients.  We’ve had to spend a lot of money on not only security cameras but we’ve had to have metal grates made for the windows.”

Interestingly, the only other pharmacies to sign on to Gallagher’s proposal were all locally owned. Those that declined were Wal-mart, K-Mart, Kroger, CVS, and Walgreens.  Represented by Grant Monahan of the Indiana Retail Council, those five pharmacies cited concerns over increased costs to their businesses and overall healthcare delivery as reason not to sign on to the prescription-only initiative.

Next in the series Indiana Legislature Meeting to Study Side Effects of Meth

Arianna Prothero

Arianna Prothero started at WFIU as a reporter in May of 2008. She is now the Interim Assistant Radio News Director and, along with her reporting duties, produces WFIU’s Noon Edition and anchors All Things Considered on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Arianna holds her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in Political Science with a minor in Russian and Eastern European Studies.

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