Drug Enforcement Law Aims to Take Out Smurfs

By: Gerri L. Elder

In Iowa, a recent report indicated that the number of extremely dangerous homemade “meth labs” in the state was declining. One of the reasons for the slowdown in production of the drug is a law that restricts access to one of the necessary chemicals needed to manufacture methamphetamine.

Well, now criminals have found a way around the law and it has made lawmakers and drug enforcement officers nervous.

The law limits the amount of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine that can purchased at pharmacies. Pseudoephedrine is extracted from the medication and used to make the illegal and highly addictive methamphetamine. Prior to the law, cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine could be purchased over-the-counter.

The law made pseudoephedrine a controlled substance, and while it can still be purchased without a prescription, identification is required for purchase and pharmacies keep a log of purchases to limit the amount to no more than 7,500 milligrams in 30 days per person, without a prescription.

The problem is that the law does not require pharmacies to communicate with each other and share the information on their logs. So effectively, the law is limiting purchases to no more than 7,500 milligrams in 30 days per person, per store. A criminal can go to one store and buy the maximum amount of medication, then go to a store across the street and get the same amount there. And from there it goes on and on, until they have enough pseudoephedrine to fuel a “meth lab”.

The director of the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, Ken Carter, calls the practice of going from pharmacy to pharmacy to purchase the maximum amounts of cold medicine with pseudoephedrine “smurfing”. Carter wants to see a crackdown on “smurfing” and hopes that lawmakers will make some adjustments to the law to prevent it from happening. Otherwise, the state may see more “meth labs” pop up.

Before the law was passed in 2005, the state usually seized about 25 to 30 “meth labs” a year. Since the law limiting access to pseudoephedrine was passed, they say they only bust about 3 to 5 a year, but police say the numbers are rising.

Criminals are recruiting people to “smurf” for them after they have already been to every store themselves and purchased the maximum amounts of the drug. They reportedly pay the “smurfs” $25 to $50 per box for the medication, or in some cases just trade methamphetamine for the cold medicine.

Gary Kendell, director of the Governor”s Office of Drug Control Policy says that his office wants a statewide tracking system implemented that will link pharmacies together and stop the “smurfing”. Kendell believes that the tracking system would stop most meth production in the state because criminals would no longer be able to get their hands on enough pseudoephedrine.

Experts say that even if Iowa is able to virtually eliminate “meth labs” in the state, it will not stop use of the drug in the state. They estimate that 95 percent of the meth in Iowa is smuggled in from Mexico and the southwestern United States and only a small percentage of meth used in Iowa is produced there.

A bill to create the tracking system for pharmacies died in Iowa”s General Assembly last year. The bill will be re-introduced and will require the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to maintain a central database of pseudoephedrine purchases. Kendell says that since the bill will piggyback the Methamphetamine Production Prevention Act, Iowa will be eligible for $260,000 to help put a tracking system in place.

Lawmakers say that if they can knock out “smurfs” and stop meth production in Iowa, it will free up the manpower to go after the larger problem, drug smugglers who bring meth into the state.