Patriot Act includes crackdown on meth use, production


By LAURIE KELLMAN
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- Suffer from springtime allergies? You could be among the first affected by the USA Patriot Act poised for final congressional passage this week.

Besides terrorism, the bill takes aim at the production of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that cannot be manufactured without a key ingredient of everyday cold and allergy medicines. The bill would impose new limits next month for how much relief a person can buy over the counter.

And beginning Sept. 30, it'll take a flash of ID to buy that medication.

The legislation sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and Jim Talent, R-Mo., would blanket the nation with one policy that would put medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter and out of the reach of meth cooks.

"If we leave it up to local jurisdiction, we're simply going to move the problem from one jurisdiction to another without addressing the root cause," said Fresno, Calif., Police Chief Jerry Dyer.

Pass a state or local law cracking down on methamphetamine production, set off a cycle that goes something like this:

The black market price of cold tablets needed to make the drug skyrockets, driving the meth makers to the jurisdiction next door. There, they buy it in bulk _ legally, cheaply, anonymously.

That is, until that state or city gets tough on meth with new laws of its own.

Rather than wait for localities to stitch together a patchwork of anti meth policies, the provision of the Patriot Act would leave meth producers nowhere to run but out of the country. It takes aim at the meth trade's weakest point _ the supply of pseudoephedrine.

Beginning 30 days after President Bush signs the law, expected sometime this week, purchase limits go into effect. One person would be limited to buying 300, 30-mg pills in a month or 120 such pills in a day. The measure would make an exception for "single-use" sales _ individually packaged pseudoephedrine products.

Many retailers, such as Kmart, Walgreens, Target and Wal-Mart, have already adopted guidelines to limit customer access to cold products or to limit their sales.

Similar state and local restrictions have caused seizures of meth labs to plunge by double-digit percentages in such states as Arkansas, Oregon and Missouri.

At the same time, drug agents began finding more meth from Mexican cartels on the street.

Still, closing down domestic meth labs is of unique urgency to public health and safety, law enforcement officials said.

The drug is made in clandestine labs with battery acid, drain cleaner or other chemicals that help turn the cold and allergy medicine into powder.

One quart of ether, another ingredient, holds the explosive power of several sticks of dynamite, said Sgt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County, Mo., Narcotics Enforcement Unit, which has seized 600 meth labs since 1998 in a jurisdiction of 100,000 people.

Wading into the toxic soup of a meth lab puts officers in situations for which they are not necessarily trained, Grellner said.

"They have to know the job of a hazardous-waste chemist. They have to have the mindset of a firefighter. They have to be a natural-resources worker," Grellner said. "Wearing that many hats is a safety concern."

And an abandoned lab becomes an environmental hazard, pointed out Dyer.

"They were leaving the chemicals and equipment out in the open and vacating the property," Dyer said. "They found out that we started to trace down suspects with that equipment. Now they are burying these same items underground."

Oklahoma provides evidence that driving out meth labs doesn't mean getting rid of meth. Oklahoma's meth lab seizures have fallen 90 percent since April 2004, when it became the first state to ban over-the-counter sales of everyday cold and allergy medications.

At the same time, seizures of smokeable Mexican meth known as "crystal ice" rose nearly fivefold, from 384 cases in the 15 months before the law to 1,875 since.

"We're going to see trafficking by Mexican cartel organizations, on a much larger scale," Grellner said.

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