By Jim Salter
The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — At the height of the methamphetamine epidemic, several states turned to a new weapon to disrupt the drug trade: electronic systems that could track sales of the cold medicine used to make meth.
Tracking sales by computer 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 an Associated Press analysis of federal data reveals that the practice has not only failed to curb the meth trade, which is growing again after a brief decline. It also created a vast and highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup.
In just a few years, the lure of such easy money has drawn thousands of new people into the methamphetamine underworld.
"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."
Inside their vehicles, the so-called "pill brokers" punch out blister packs into a bucket and even clip coupons, Boggs said.
In some cases, the pill buyers are not interested in meth. They may be homeless people recruited off the street or even college kids seeking weekend beer money, authorities say.
But because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, they 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.
In the past, the process of "cooking" meth was often a one-person operation, with producers buying as many cold pills as they needed.
Now, with laws that strictly limit purchases and record buyers' names, meth producers recruit friends, acquaintances, strangers and even their own children to buy pills.
The process, known as "smurfing," is not entirely new, but it has come into wider practice over the last two to three years as states have sought to limit the availability of pseudoephedrine.
Grellner recalled one case where a woman took her 17-year-old daughter out smurfing. When police caught up to them, the mother forced the girl to hide the pills in her vagina. She nearly bled to death in the county jail.
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 more smurfing. 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."
Ron Fitzwater, CEO of the Missouri Pharmacy Association, agrees.
"It's not a perfect system, but we think it will have a major impact that will help law enforcement," Fitzwater said.
Meth arrests and lab busts are not the only indicator that use of the drug is on the rise. In September, the annual report from the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed a 60 percent one-year increase in the number of meth users.
Meanwhile, DEA statistics show an increasing amount of meth is arriving from Mexico. Authorities are concerned about the growing popularity of "shake-and-bake" meth, which is made in small amounts by simply mixing ingredients in a two-liter soda bottle.
Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Control, said the shake-and-bake method sidesteps tracking laws. Meth producers "come in and buy one pack of cold pills and a soda, so they're really not raising any red flags," he said.
More than a dozen other states are adopting their own tracking laws or considering doing so. One benefit is the cost, which amounts to virtually nothing for cash-strapped state governments.
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.
Missouri led the nation in meth incidents in 2009 for the seventh straight year. The state is in the early stages of electronic tracking, but its meth problem is so bad that more than a dozen communities have passed their own prescription laws.
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Boggs, the DEA agent, didn't take a stand on prescription laws, but said the pill brokers are out of control: "They've created this whole other effort for law enforcement."