Mo. behind other states in controlling meth-making ingredients

Monday, April 14, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri has long led the nation in meth lab busts. Yet the state has not adopted strict laws for obtaining meth's key ingredient, pseudoephedrine.

The laws are credited with helping Oklahoma and Oregon see the biggest declines of meth labs of any states. In Oklahoma, lawmakers created a statewide database that networked its 1,485 pharmacies and stops illegal sales at the counter. In Oregon, officials made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, as it was in the United States before 1976.

In Missouri, all meth producers have to do is sign paper logs that are often too cumbersome for police to check. Authorities on the front lines of the battle against meth say the relatively lax procedures make it to easy for meth producers to go from store to store, gathering pseudoephedrine pills that they cook into meth by using a dangerous and toxic formula.

"I shudder to think what people are going to say 20 years from now as to why we didn't eliminate this problem," said state Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, who is pushing for tougher laws.

Authorities like Jefferson County's Sheriff's Department Sgt. Gary Higginbotham are waiting for the reforms. In the meantime, they struggle to keep tabs on long lists of customers who buy large quantities of pseudoephedrine at different pharmacies.

Higginbotham led Jefferson County's drug unit when Congress passed a 2005 law limiting pseudoephedrine purchases to 9 grams every 30 days. That's roughly two 15-dose boxes of 24-hour Claritin D or six 24-dose boxes of Sudafed.

Missouri passed a law authorizing only licensed pharmacies to sell the products. Anyone buying pseudoephedrine products had to show ID and sign paper logs kept at pharmacy counters.

Elected leaders touted the law as the solution to the mom-and-pop meth labs and the laws did help. From 2005 through 2007, Missouri's lab totals were nearly halved.

But Missouri still ended 2007 with 1,189 busts, more than double any other state's. St. Louis County Sgt. Tom Murley said part of the problem is wading through paper lists of customers.

"There is just way too much information and too many pharmacies and not enough guys to go out and get it," Murley said.

Missouri's House and Senate passed bills this year that would build a centralized database similar to Oklahoma's. Even if both chambers agree on a program, the money won't be available until next year. And then, it's unclear when the state's 1,790 pharmacies will be linked.

But some counties in Missouri and Illinois aren't waiting.

St. Louis County landed a $12,000 grant this year to install MethCheck at about 45 area pharmacies.

Oregon officials decided a database wouldn't stop meth producers from shopping in groups or paying people to buy pills, said Rob Bovett, of the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association.

So state officials made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. Doing so greatly inhibited the practice of so-called "smurfers," or meth producers who cruise pharmacies and pick up pseudoephedrine in small batches, Bovett said.

In 2004, police there found 472 labs. In 2007, they found 20 a 95 percent decline, the largest drop of states with large lab totals.

"Smurfers are usually addicts and paranoid," he said. "The idea of going to a dozen doctors to get prescriptions for two or three boxes is beyond the pale."

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