Anti-meth effort takes aim at ‘smurfing’

Business, health and elected leaders set aside strategic differences Wednesday to agree on a tactical step to address Missouri’s persistent methamphetamine problem.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced the creation of a statewide campaign to inform purchasers of pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medicines that purchasing the drugs for meth cooks is illegal.

Pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in popular medications such as Sudafed and Claritin-D, is an essential chemical necessary for manufacturing meth. The initiative announced Wednesday is aimed at discouraging the practice of “smurfing,” in which consumers purchase their legal limit of pseudoephedrine-based products and sell them to makers of illegal drugs.

“With the anti-smurfing campaign, Missouri leaders are coming together … to send an unmistakable message: If you’re buying this product for a meth cook, you are committing a serious criminal offense and could end up behind bars,” Koster said.

Though Missouri does not have a law that specifically bans smurfing, those suspected of purchasing and reselling medications to the drug trade can be charged with conspiring to produce illegal drugs, which can carry heavy prison terms.

Smurfing can be as simple as a local meth cook recruiting friends and family to buy the drug or as sophisticated as a large gang using false identification to purchase huge amounts for resale to brokers, who can pay up to $100 for a $7 box of cold tablets.

Though law enforcement has said that most meth in the U.S. market comes ready-made from labs in Mexico or from cartel-operated “super-labs” in California, local production depends on smurfing, experts say.

And no place makes meth quite like Missouri.

A federal study released last month showed that in 2011, Missouri once again led the nation in “meth incidents,” a critical production measure that included the discoveries of meth laboratories and dump sites and seizures of chemicals and lab equipment.

Despite improved electronic tracking and federal limits on purchases, the problems have persisted and grown worse in recent years, largely because of smurfing, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Some in law enforcement, such as Koster and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, have favored returning pseudoephedrine to its pre-1976 status as a prescription-only drug.

But on Wednesday, Koster and Baker appeared with health and business leaders, who traditionally have resisted more stringent regulation, to endorse the new consumer education program.

Carlos Gutierrez, senior director for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents makers of over-the-counter medications, said the smurfing initiative is an opportunity to find common ground.

“Leaders of different political persuasions and different backgrounds are putting aside their differences and taking meaningful action against smurfing,” Gutierrez said.

The program will feature signs at participating pharmacies that warn purchasers, “Buying Meds to Make Meth? Police Take NAMES . . . And Make ARRESTS.”

A second version warns: “Meth Makes Children Orphans.”

Gutierrez said his organization has tested the messages to strike a balance between showing the consequences of smurfing and not alarming law-abiding people who need cold or allergy medication.

The program was instituted only a few months ago in two other states, so measures of its effectiveness still are preliminary, Gutierrez said.

The GAO report noted that while electronic tracking systems, paid for largely by legitimate drug manufacturers, are effective in enforcing federal pseudoephedrine purchase limits, those measures have not reduced meth lab incidents.

The report suggested that the most effective tool for reducing local meth production appeared to be returning pseudoephedrine to prescription status, a proposal that died in both the Missouri and Kansas legislatures two years ago amid concerns of increased health care costs and inconvenience to consumers.

Two states that have taken the prescription-only approach, Oregon and Mississippi, have seen dramatic declines in meth lab incidents, the GAO report noted. In Oregon, such incidents declined from 67 in 2006, when it began requiring prescriptions, to 11 in 2011.

Mississippi’s meth lab incidents dropped from 937 in 2010, when it took similar action, to 321 the following year.

There’s also a bright spot for Missouri in the GAO data. The study noted that 63 Missouri cities and counties have restricted pseudoephedrine products to prescription-only status.

And though Missouri meth lab incidents increased almost 7 percent from 2010 to 2011, they dropped by nearly half in southeast Missouri, where most of the prescription-only jurisdictions are located, the GAO observed.