Meth cooks can easily game pseudoephedrine system

Published: May. 16, 2014 at 12:09 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Smurfing to get meth is a system that relies on dozens of people – sometimes unsuspecting and innocent – to help a cook get ingredients for another batch of meth.

WIS went undercover with a reformed meth cook to explore smurfing – waiting outside of a big box store and asking people walking by if they wanted to make a quick $20. If the person said yes, the former meth cook Todd McGill would then ask them to buy him allergy medication with pseudoephedrine in it. McGill said he used to get more than the state-allowed limit to make meth. Typically, McGill said eight out of 10 times, his method worked.

Pseudoephedrine is a crucial chemical for making meth that is found in common cold and allergy medicine.

"Smurfers, people who have bought the maximum daily or monthly limit or employing other people to buy more and more of these pills," said Lt. Max Dorsey of the State Law Enforcement Division.

Under federal guidelines, a buyer can only purchase 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine based on cold medicine per day, and the person's ID is logged electronically. Per month, 3.6 grams is roughly three boxes depending on the type of medicine.

For McGill, it was never enough medicine.

"I wouldn't do it unless I could make three grams of meth, which would be one box – one big box of pseudoephedrine," McGill said.

McGill had a system for approaching people in public when trying to get them to purchase cold and allergy medicine for him.

"Usually a 20- to 30-year-old black male because they're not users of the drug," McGill explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average meth user is Caucasian and under 25 years old.

When WIS went out with McGill to see how easy it would be to get shoppers to purchase the cold and allergy medicine, WIS discovered some did not know the medicine was used to make meth.

Shopper: "Sudafed … I don't know anything about that."

PJ Randhawa: "So were you actually going to go in and buy the medicine for him?"

Shopper: "No, I was just going to go shopping with my daughter and walk right out."

Others WIS approached immediately denied the request to buy the medicine.

Shopper Troy Belton: "It sounds like I wasn't about to do anything good, so I was just trying to stay out of trouble."

PJ Randhawa: "He was going to ask you to buy Sudafed, the common cold medicine. Are you aware of what people are using that for?"

Belton: "I have no idea. What are they using that for?"

PJ Randhawa: "If you get enough boxes you can use it to make meth."

Belton: "I wouldn't even think he was using meth, but I guess you can't tell from looking at somebody."

Lawmaker and pharmacist Kit Spires, who runs a small drug store in Pelion, said most times you can tell when someone is using meth.

"You can tell generally," Spires said. "In most cases, they're on the meth when they come in. You can exhibit the anxiety, the nervousness. They get in front of everyone in the line. They're very talkative, and they try to distract you by talking a lot."

WIS producer: "Hey, can I ask you a quick question?"

Shopper Charles Frazier agrees almost immediately to buy allergy medicine for the producer, but says he doesn't have his driver's license.

PJ Randhawa: "Did you ever think an ingredient like that, used to make meth, would be in a superstore like that?

Frazier: "No ma'am. I don't think it should be in any superstore. It should be prescription only."

Then WIS got a "no" from a woman who knew what allergy medicine could be used for.

WIS producer: "Hey there, would you do me a favor and buy this allergy medicine? I met my limit and they want my ID. They won't do it."

April Platts: "No, I'm sorry. Ordinarily, I'd do it, but that's illegal."

Actually, it's not illegal, unless the person asking tells the shopper it will be used for meth.

PJ Randhawa: "Is there anything he could have said to you that would've convinced you to get that medicine?"

Platts: "I don't think so. I do think it should be illegal. It all rolls downhill. If I buy you something to make meth, you go make meth, you sell it to someone, someone dies … what's my part in that?"

Since 2011, the National Pharmacy Monitoring System NPLEX has blocked the sale of more than 53,000 boxes of the drug in South Carolina. According to SLED, in 2012, there were 1,333,649 boxes of pseudoephedrine sold and 48,173 blocked sales. In 2013, there were 1,319,286 boxes sold and 53,635 blocked sales. According to SLED, 89 percent of South Carolinians did not buy any Sudafed last year.

"The NPLEX system is a wonderful system to use, but it's not stopping meth labs," Dorsey said.

Narcotic agents told WIS less than 10 percent of the meth labs they find are a result of the NPLEX system alerting them to suspicious activity. WIS also put that system to the test.

Reporter PJ Randhawa bought a box of Sudafed at one store and then went to a different one to try to buy another box. Her ID was flagged at the second pharmacy.

Spires said it's an easy system to manipulate.

"You can have a fake ID to get meth," Spires said. "You have to list a driver's license number, but it's not checked in the data system with the highway department. With computers, you can generate IDs that would pass."

That's why Spires is leading the charge in the State House to make South Carolina the third state in the nation to make pseudoephedrine-based medicine available by prescription only.

"We need to get Sudafed as a prescription, so we can regulate it," Spires said. "So it's easily accessible, and I don't think the doctors would mind."

Pharmacy company lobbyists fighting the legislation say restricting the drug would be futile.

"We're not willing to totally eliminate our customers' ability to buy this freely," said Jason Puhlasky, lobbyist for Consumer Health Care Products Association. "The No. 1 most abused drug in the world is prescription pain killers in the United States of America. If you think that something becomes a prescription and you need to go to a doctor and it cannot be abused, you need to look up Rush Limbaugh and see if that's the fact, because it's not."

McGill is now advocating for the legislation. He says if something like that were in place, it might've stopped him a long time ago.

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