If you ask law enforcement officers about their preference between tracking sales of ephedrine through a nationwide database or making ephedrine a prescription-only drug, most of them will tell you that a tracking system doesn’t work and that only prescription would be able to cut meth labs development in the country.
Cooking meth is so easy
In fact, it became very easy to cook meth since the receipt can be found everywhere and doesn’t require special skills. The so-called “shake-and-bake” or “one-pot” meth cooking are just combining household products with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in a 20-ounce plastic soda bottle to get a single hit of crystal methamphetamine, by separating one oxygen molecule in the chemical reaction. Cops even found that most one-pop meth labs were using only one box of pseudoephedrine, which makes it extremely hard to stop as you can guess. Not even talking about stopping totally the rise of meth labs, how could it be at least reduced, how could law make it harder for meth cooks?
The obvious answer is to restrict sales of ephedrine as cold and allergy medication, most of the time over the counter, for instance in convenience stores. This could be done by tracking sales of ephedrine in the NPLEX system (National Precursor Log Exchange), a nationwide database which blocks automatically all sales exceeding the authorized quantity per person and per month. Each pharmacy would be connected to the NPLEX database, sending an control request before the sale and receiving a warning in return when the legal limit has been hit. Of course, in that case the name of the buyer is kept in the database for further use, for instance to identify potential trafficking networks.
But again, law enforcement officers think that this system has no real effect on meth labs. Why do they think that this modern solution is powerless against meth cooks, what are their arguments? We will detail them below.
NPLEX does nothing against ephedrine, cops say.
Tracking sales until reaching the legal monthly limit of ephedrine is not enough, according to cops, because meth addicts are simply bypassing this authorized quantity per person per month just by paying other people to buy ephedrine for them. This easy workaround known as “smurfing” has reached such a level that people who had no experience of meth came to this black market just for quick cash. In Tulsa for instance, one single box of Sudafed can be sold up to $50. This situation is even worse in Missouri, where J. Grellner, president of the Narcotics Officers Association, says to everyone that “in Missouri, pseudoephedrine is no longer a commodity, it’s currency”. And when a state classified ephedrine as a prescription-only drug, of course smurfers go to neighboring states to buy a few boxes under their limit and come back to sell to meth cooks.
For cops, fixing a monthly limit of ephedrine is not enough: in the state of Tennessee, around 5,000 sales of ephedrine have been blocked thanks to the NPLEX system, but that means also that those people who were blocked have been able to buy 15,000 boxes of ephedrine before they got blocked…
According to cops, the NPLEX system doesn’t help them to act in a preventive way: it can’t be used to draw potential trafficking patterns in advance, smurfers being too many and too smart to get caught so easily. Instead of fishing for a limited number of big fishes, cops have the feeling that smurfers act like small fishes, being able to escape from their trawl nets. Cops say that the NPLEX database has no interest for them in order to find meth labs: most of the time, they get their information through domestic violence cases, neighbors calling in, etc… They just use NPLEX from time to time to bolster the case.
Some cops say that the NPLEX system is even hampering their efforts because they are overwhelmed with unnecessary data that confuses them and prevents them to focus more on their real work, finding and neutralizing meth labs before explosion.
Some law enforcement officers are so convinced that NPLEX is a waste of time and money that they started an active lobbying in their states, going county by county for months, convincing municipalities to decide for prescription laws for ephedrine. At this time, only Oregon and Mississippi have classified ephedrine as a prescription-only drug. Other states could follow, depending on their current bills. But the game is not played yet: proponents of the NPLEX system has also their word to say, and this will be detailed in our next post.
By Mike Budd