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Officials push Iowa-wide meth tracking system

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register
PoliceOne Exclusive: How an Ark. community fought meth and won

DES MOINES, Iowa — Drug policy officials urged lawmakers Tuesday to launch a statewide instant verification system to track the sales of certain cold medicines in order to avoid a new spike in methamphetamine abuse.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Without statewide tracking, officials said, it is not difficult for criminals to get around Iowa's law that limits the purchase of cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient needed to make meth.

Using a practice known as "smurfing," individuals can purchase the maximum amount of cold medicine the law allows at one pharmacy and simply stop at more stores until they have enough of the drug to make meth.

Lawmakers on Tuesday began discussing House File 852, a law aimed at establishing the statewide system. It also would require customers to show state-issued photo identification before they could purchase pseudoephedrine products.

"We just want to be ahead of the game and not get ourselves in the situation we were in during the '90s when this thing just took off and we weren't ready for it," said Gary Kendell, director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy. "We know the loophole exists in the current system that allows them to go from pharmacy to pharmacy, and we want to close that loophole before they start using it more often."

Lawmakers passed a law in 2005 that took pseudoephedrine off the shelves and turned it into a controlled substance. Buyers are now required to show identification and have their names entered into a log that helps retailers limit purchases to no more than 7,500 milligrams in 30 days without a prescription.

Iowa officials reported 168 meth labs in 2007, down from around 335 the previous year.

The state's cost to implement such a system would be around $230,000 with a $30,000 cost annually to maintain the system, according to the Board of Pharmacy Examiners. While there is no money currently budgeted for the system, it is possible that federal grant money could be used, Kendell said.

A lobbyist for retailers told lawmakers there is concern that the system could create costs for business owners. Another lobbyist, Marty Ryan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said his group is concerned about personal privacy. The proposal, however, stipulates that the information transmitted by such a system would be confidential and could only be released through a court order.

Only Oklahoma has a similar check system in place, although several other states are in the process of implementing similar checks, Kendell said.

Kendell told lawmakers that such states as Tennessee and Missouri have recently seen an increase in meth labs, which he attributed to the lack of a statewide database system.

"Smurfing is a problem all over the place," Kendell said.

The proposal is currently in a House Public Safety subcommittee. It must pass out of the subcommittee and the full committee before it would be eligible for House debate.

"We've got to do whatever it takes to keep the meth labs down," said Rep. Kurt Swaim, a Bloomfield Democrat and member of the House Public Safety Committee. "The Legislature is just committed to do whatever we must in order to stop this from resurfacing."

Copyright 2008 The Des Moines Register

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