Making meth harder to make; new law will restrict sale of products containing pseudoephedrine
CENTRE - A new state law restricting the sale of cold and allergy products containing pseudoephedrine goes into effect Aug. 1, and local law enforcement officers are hoping the changes will make life harder for the dealers who cook the highly addictive narcotic.
The new law, passed during the most recent session of the Alabama Legislature, is actually an amendment to the Code of Alabama, Section 20-2-190, which deals with unauthorized possession of "precursor chemicals." The new language extends the violation to products with the sole active ingredient of pseudoephedrine in strength of 60 mg or more per tablet.
The law specifies that such tablets cannot be sold "for retail sale loose in bottles. Only in blister packets will be allowed. The amendment further states that the products containing pseudoephedrine cannot be offered for retail sale by "self-service," but must be "stored behind a counter or barrier so that it is not accessible by the public, and only accessible by a retail store employee."
The law also outlines punishment for anyone who sells more than three packages of such products, or any number of packages containing a combined total of more than 9 grams of any products containing pseudoephedrine as the sole active ingredient or in combination with other active ingredients. Punishment on the first offense is a Class C misdemeanor, and subsequent violations will be considered Class A misdemeanors.
The amendment outlines several exceptions to the law, such as products intended for children under 12 years of age and any product exempted by the Alabama State Board of Pharmacy. The law also authorizes the creation of the Alabama Methamphetamine Abuse Task Force to develop education and training programs designed to curb the availability of chemicals used to make the illegal form of the drug.
Various forms of meth -- including the ultra-pure crystal meth -- have invaded Cherokee County recently. The mobile home bathroom, dank basement and woodshed labs were the drugs are often "cooked" have become the main target of members of the Cherokee County Drug Task Force and other local law officers.
"There were already laws in place to deal with people who acquire these precursor chemicals that are used to make meth," said Cherokee County Drug Task Force Commander Jeff Morgan. "What did not exist was a law to try and keep the purchases from happening in the first place. That's what this law is basically supposed to do."
Morgan explained that all the tools and ingredients needed to make meth are readily available at local hardware and grocery stores. And, he said, a lot of local stores are ordering more of the items that they would normally be expected to sell in a reasonable period of time.
"There's a lot of common sense involved" in looking for someone who may be buying items to manufacture meth, Morgan said. And some local businesses are calling him when they see something that doesn't add up.
"The dollar stores are calling a lot," Morgan said. "The grocery stores, Wal-Mart, they are real good about calling, too."
Morgan said smaller, rural businesses that may be struggling to maintain profitability are often where a lot of precursor chemicals end up in the hands of drug dealers.
In February 2003, the Drug Task Force raided Rip's One Stop in the Blanche community after receiving reports that items such as matches, lantern fuel, coffee filters, rubbing alcohol, etc. -- all used to make meth -- were disappearing from store shelves in large quantities. Store owner Rip Van Davis was arrested and charged with four counts of unlawful distribution of precursor chemicals. The store reopened a few days later, but under a court order from Circuit Judge David Rains prohibiting the sale of any of the chemicals listed by the sheriff's department as likely to be used to make methamphetamine.
"If someone comes in the store and buys two boxes of Sudafed, that's no big deal. But if they come in there and they're buying three boxes in the morning, four boxes at dinner, that's enough" to make meth. Morgan said the new law will mean there's a better chance those chemicals won't end up in the hands of dealers. Still, he said he and his officers will remain vigilant.
"If we get reports that stores are selling the pseudoephedrine products (in violation of the new law), they better watch," Morgan said. "We may have an undercover guy go in and buy it and if we do, they're done."
Morgan said he figures store owners in the county will need to sit down and explain the specifics of the new law to their employees to make sure there are no unintentional violations, since it is ultimately the store owners, not the sales clerks, who will be held responsible.
Morgan said the Drug Task Force will mail a letter to every store in the county where cold and allergy medicines are sold to inform them of the law and what is expected to ensure compliance.
"We'll probably even send them a copy of the law itself, just so they'll have it," he added.
Morgan said the number of labs he and his officers have raided this year is significantly higher than the number from this time a year ago. He thinks the key to cutting the number of meth users is to make the chemicals harder to come by, so less and less of the drug makes it to end users.
"That's what it's going to take, is getting things to where (dealers) can't get their chemicals," he said. "I think that's when you see the number of labs drop."
State Sen. Larry Means, one of the authors of the amendment, said he's willing to do anything he can to help stem what is obviously a growing drug problem in rural areas.
"This drug is so easy to make, and not a day goes by that I don't read in the paper or hear on the news that another lab has been busted," he said. "It's an ongoing problem and I'm glad we were able to get together and pass a law that will make it harder on these drug dealers. I don't know if we'll ever eliminate the problem completely, but hopefully if this law is enforced properly it will help the fight against methamphetamine use. If it doesn't help enough, we'll do whatever else is necessary to try and stop the spread of meth."
Sheriff Larry Wilson confirmed that his department will inform every store about the specifics of the new law.
"We'll get with everybody and give them an update to let the businesses know that this is a new law that has been passed," Wilson said. "We'll give everybody an opportunity to let them know they have to put these products behind the counter and not just out where the public can get them."
Several stores in the area where Sudafed and similar medicines are sold declined to comment for this article, saying they wanted to wait and hear from the sheriff's department before commenting on any potential changes in store policy.
At one local grocery store, however, management isn't waiting to be told what to do.
"We've had all our those items behind the counter for about two months," said Foodland Manager Tommy Corley. "There's a sign on the shelf telling anyone who needs Sudafed to ask for it at the service center."'