ST. LOUIS – Electronic systems that track sales of the cold medicine used to make methamphetamine have failed to curb the drug trade and instead created a vast, highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup.
An Associated Press review of federal data shows that the lure of such easy money has drawn thousands of new people into the methamphetamine underworld over the last few years.
“It’s almost like a sub-criminal culture,” said Gary Boggs, an agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration. “You’ll see them with a GPS unit set up in a van with a list of every single pharmacy or retail outlet. They’ll spend the entire week going store to store and buy to the limit.”
At the height of the meth epidemic, several states turned to electronic systems, which allowed pharmacies to check instantly whether a buyer had already purchased the legal limit of pseudoephedrine – a step that was supposed to make it harder to obtain raw ingredients for meth. But it has not worked as intended.
Because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, individuals can buy a box of pills for $7 to $8 and sell it for $40 or $50.
The tracking systems “invite more people into the criminal activity because the black market price of the product becomes so much more profitable,” said Jason Grellner, a detective in hard-hit Franklin County, Mo., about 40 miles west of St. Louis.
“Where else can you make a 750 percent profit in 45 minutes?” asked Grellner, former president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.
Since tracking laws were enacted beginning in 2006, the number of meth busts nationwide has started climbing again. Some experts say the black market for cold pills contributed to that spike. Other factors are at play, too, such as meth trafficking by Mexican cartels and new methods for making small amounts of meth.
The AP reviewed DEA data spanning nearly a decade, from 2000 to 2009, and conducted interviews with a wide array of police and government officials.
Meth-related activity is on the rise again nationally, up 34 percent in 2009, the year with the most recent figures. That number includes arrests, seizures of the drug and the discovery of abandoned meth-production sites.
The increase was higher in the three states that have electronically tracked sales of medication containing pseudoephedrine since at least 2008. Meth incidents rose a combined 67 percent in those states – 34 percent in Arkansas, 65 percent in Kentucky and 164 percent in Oklahoma.
Supporters of tracking say the numbers have spiked because the system makes it easier for police to find people who participate in meth production. But others question whether the tracking has helped make the problem worse by creating a new class of criminals that police must pursue.
Efforts to limit the availability of pseudoephedrine gained momentum in 2005, when Congress passed the Combat Meth Act, which set limits on sales of the decongestant and two other key ingredients used in meth.
The law mandated that pills be placed behind the counter, made purchasers show ID and, for the first time, required pharmacies to log each sale.
As technology progressed, states took logging a step further. With electronic tracking, buyers’ names were entered into statewide databases. Some states link their databases together.
The tracking meant that, if customers had purchased their monthly limit of pseudoephedrine, the pharmacist knew instantly, and the sale was refused. In some states, police were notified.
Initially, the practice yielded swift results. Meth incidents dropped by nearly two-thirds – from 18,581 in 2004 to 6,233 in 2007.
Oklahoma, which adopted an electronic tracking system in 2006, was heralded as a success story after meth incidents dropped from 699 in 2004 to 93 in 2007.
But then meth producers regrouped, largely through “smurfing” – when meth producers recruit friends, acquaintances, strangers and even their own children to buy pills. And meth-related incidents began climbing again. By 2009, the DEA cited 10,064 meth incidents, a 62 percent rise over the previous two years.
Police and federal agents never expected that electronic tracking would actually draw more people into the criminal enterprise surrounding meth.
“Law enforcement was surprised,” St. Louis County Sgt. Tom Murley said. “People that normally wouldn’t cross the line are willing to do so because they think it’s such a sweet deal, and because of the economy.”
Advocates of tracking say the rise in meth incidents indicates success, not failure.
“One reason these numbers have gone up is because of law enforcement’s ability to track and locate the people producing meth,” said Keith Cain, sheriff in Daviess County, Ky. “If we pull the plug on electronic tracking, we lose the ability to see where these labs are at. I fear we would regress 10 years.”
The pharmaceutical industry has spent several million dollars to fund the tracking systems. For drug makers, that is far cheaper than one alternative – making the medication available only by prescription.
Oregon began requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine products in 2006. Mississippi became the second state to do so in July, and Missouri’s governor is asking lawmakers to follow suit in 2011.
If more states do the same, it could be devastating for makers of cold and sinus pills. The pseudoephedrine market is estimated at more than $550 million annually.
Opponents of prescription laws say they punish mostly law-abiding consumers for the crimes of a relative few.
But many law enforcement officials say it’s hard to argue with Oregon’s success. The state had 191 meth incidents in 2005, the year before the prescription-only law. By 2009, it had 12.