Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Computers soon will track cold medicine buyers

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING- In 2009, Michigan had 659 methamphetamine production busts throughout the state.

Meanwhile, Oregon reported only 10.

Part of the reason for the dramatic difference shown by statistics from the Oregon State Police and Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association is a 2005 state law that requires a prescription for cold and allergy medications with ingredients used in making meth. The year before the law, the state had 192 busts.

Methamphetamine is a stimulant that can, over time, lead to altered brain functions, extreme weight loss, paranoia, insomnia and a heightened risk of HIV and hepatitis transmission.

Lt. Tony Saucedo, the unit commander of the Michigan State Police’s methamphetamine investigation team, said that control over those allergy medications would reduce meth production in Michigan.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are allergy medications that help open restricted airways. Chemically they’re one oxygen molecule away from meth, according to Saucedo.

“Any time that you can control that, whether it’s through prescription or other means, you’re going to have a better handle on the methamphetamine production,” he said.

Even so, Saucedo acknowledged, “You’re not going to stop people from using methamphetamines.”

Since 2005 Michigan law requires retailers to keep ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products out of customers’ reach and requires buyers to show identification and sign for the purchase. The store must keep sales records for at least six months.

Sen. Patty Birkholz, R- Saugatuck, said that although there have been legislative discussions about tightened control over medications, she’s unsure that following Oregon’s change would fit Michigan’s needs. Birkholz has gone undercover with the Allegan County Meth Task Force for a day.

She said Oregon is the only state that requires a prescription.

“It’s a real challenge, though, in Michigan because we have a lot of people with allergies, ” she said.

Greg Baran, the director of government affairs for the Michigan Pharmacists Association, said health care costs create another concern with the Oregon model.

“Although requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine would ratchet down access to the drug, I could also see an increase in health care costs,” he said. “Now individuals can go into a pharmacy or a grocery store and purchase the drug, but such a change would require a prescription from their physician before having access, and that entails an office visit or something to that effect.”

Although Birkholz and Baran said they are reluctant to see Michigan replicate what Oregon did, both said that stronger pseudoephedrine and ephedrine laws would help curb meth production.

Recounting her ride along with the Allegan County force she said “We went from pharmacy to pharmacy, and it’s amazing the number of people who will hop from town to town or even store to store in larger areas where there’s more than one place to purchase the drugs.”

That practice of going from pharmacy to pharmacy to get around the restrictions is called smurfing.

“They’ve been able to use the signature logs as a way of tracking use and tracking people who are cooking meth,” Birkholz said. “They’ve found that to be very helpful.

“One of the challenges that they’ve had, especially as we’ve cut back on revenue to our police agencies, is that it takes a fair amount of time and money to have someone drive around to all of these pharmacies and read all of the logs,” she said.

Saucedo said budget constraints make inspecting store logs more difficult, but that’s always been a problem for law enforcement agencies.

“We’re no different than anyone else, and obviously with less manpower there’s not as many things that you may be able to do in terms of checking the logs,” he said. “Even when budget times were good, that was always difficult because there are so many locations to purchase these drugs.”

That’s one reason why Birkholz advocates an electronic database to track who purchases the allergy medicines from what store and in what quantity.

Saucedo said that such a database will be launched soon. The Michigan Methamphetamine Information System will allow the state to electronically receive information from retailers, link smurfing groups that purchase the medication together and simplify paperwork.

“We’re hoping the rollout will be in 30 to 60 days,” he said. “We already have all the computer hardware, we have a server already set up, we have the actual program uploaded to the server and now we’re making some changes to make it more Michigan specific.”

Both Saucedo and Dennis Simpson, the program director of Western Michigan University’s specialty program in drugs and alcohol use, said that any change in the law won’t stop the use of meth in the state.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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