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Over-the-counter medicine thefts increasing

Focus on Trend of Stealing Cold Medications Used to Make Methamphetamine

In early March, PoliceOne featured an article titled, "Meth Lab Indicators and Officer Safety." In that piece, we referred to an abundance of over-the-counter medications as one of the key indicators that can alert you to the fact that you may be in the midst of a lab setting. The following article serves as solid confirmation of the on-going role that over-the-counter cold medicines continue to play in the world of Meth brewing. It also serves as a reminder of three additional points:

1. If in the process of a vehicle stop you notice a stockpile of cold medications, take immediate caution. You may be dealing with a mobile Meth lab driven by a potentially volatile user.

2. Take careful note of reports of stolen cold medicine from local stores and avoid falling prey to labeling these low-level crimes as cut-and-dried cases of petty theft. Dig a bit harder than usual into these kinds of cases and you might surface Meth manufacturers in your area.

3. Make sure that local merchants and store managers know of this new theft trend and appeal to them to alert you quickly if a noticeable cold medicine theft occurs. Also consider suggesting that they keep a close eye on the area of their store where cold medicines are sold and, if feasible, consider moving these specific products to a controlled area.

-- Scott Buhrmaster,
Contributing Editor

Over-The-Counter Medicine Thefts Increasing
By Charlie Bier, The Houston Chronicle

A Conroe, Texas woman was arrested April 16 at the Wal-Mart after stealing over-the-counter medication. More than likely, a runny nose or hacking cough wasn't the itch she was looking to scratch.

Theft of over-the-counter cold medicines, sometimes as much as a drug store's entire stock, has become a burgeoning trend.

Law enforcement officials said, more than likely, a runny nose or hacking cough wasn't the itch she was looking to scratch.

Theft of over-the-counter cold medicines, sometimes as much as a drug store's entire stock, has become a burgeoning trend.

Police said the unusual crime, directly linked to illicit drug use, is turning up on their blotters with increasing frequency.

The reason is pseudoephedrine in the cold medicine is used to make methamphetamine, which law enforcement labels the poor man's cocaine and is enjoying popularity as the most trendy street drug going.

A stimulant found in a variety of cold medicines and weight-loss products, pseudoephedrine in the making of meth is mixed with chemicals and solvents, then heated in a cooking pot until the liquid evaporates.

All that remains is a paste of pure ephedrine. The paste is then mixed with other stabilizing agents to return it to powder form. The concoction can be ingested in pill, powder or liquid form by swallowing it, smoking it or injecting it.

In addition to the drug's relative low cost and ease with which it can be made, meth users are hard to catch. Users, called "tweakers" in law enforcement terminology, make their own supply, eliminating the necessity for a middleman in drug transactions.

And they typically do it from small, hard-to-detect, clandestine labs.

But first they need the key ingredient.

Capt. Ken Ariola of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department said a package of Sudafed or Claritine to some drug users can be as prized a commodity as a vial of Valium.

Ariola said an increased focus on meth labs by his department has dented local activity somewhat.

"It's definitely less of a problem than what it was before," Ariola said.

But not enough to allow stores to display ephedrine-laced products freely and without limits. Some drug and grocery stores have resorted to placing pseudoephedrine-made products behind counters and in other inaccessible places, or limiting amounts one customer can buy.

Ariola said Wal-Mart became one of the first stores nationwide to limit purchase of mass quantities of ephedrine-made products in the late '90s, when federal laws addressed the problem.

Wal-Mart officials in The Woodlands referred questions to the company's corporate office in Bentonville, Ark.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Danette Thompson said the discount chain's policy - with some exceptions where state law mandates otherwise - is to limit customers to three packages of medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

In Texas, state law caps at three the amount of cold products containing pseudoehphedrine that can be purchased over any given 24-hour period.

"If cashiers attempt to scan a fourth box, (the register) prompts the cashier to let the customer know that this is an item that has a quantity limit," Thompson said.

She said a register note also prints out and is given to the customer to explain that pseudoephedrine is a precusor element in meth production.



Cases in recent years.

2001: 32, $ 2,650,559

2002: 23, $ 2,467,803

2003: 37, $ 5,256,783

2004 (to date): 9, $ 1,278,288

Related PoliceOne Report:
Meth Lab Indicators and Officer Safety

Related Story:

Kentucky town's battles with methamphetamine ensnare its police chief

About the author

If you have tactical information, compelling incidents, general comments or topics you would like to share, please contact Scott Buhrmaster, Managing Editor for PoliceOne.com and the Director of Training for the PoliceOne Training Network, at: buhrmastergroup@comcast.net

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