By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp and Etowah County Drug Enforcement Unit Commander Rob Savage met with the media last week at Jerry’s Pharmacy on Wall Street to spread the word about an anti-Smurfing campaign in Alabama.
Smurfing, Savage explained, is a street term for using a team of people to go to pharmacies and buy medicines that contain pseudophedrine – an essential ingredient in the making of methamphetamine.
Previous anti-meth efforts have made it harder for those who would make the drug to buy large quanities of the medicines to obtain the precursor ingredient. Meth cookers have resorted to using more people, buying smaller quantities of the drug for them.
Savage and Harp described the way state laws have progressed to try to combat the people who make meth. Restrictions were placed on access to the medications containing pseudophedrine, moving it behind drug store counters, and people purchasing those non-prescription medications have been required to provide ID and sign forms when they purchase the drugs.
The latest legislation to combat meth makers establishes a computer registry of pseudophedrine purchasers. When someone comes to the counter to buy such pseudophedrine medications, the pharmacist enters the potential buyer’s name into the NPLEx – National Precursor Log Exchange — computer program, and it will send up a red flag if the buyer has a record that should preclude allowing the purchase, or if the buyer has purchased a certain amount of medication with pseudophedrine within a specified period of time.
NPLEx is a “real-time” electronic logging system to track the sale of over-the-counter medications that contain precursor drugs that can be used to make methamphetamine.
Harp said the system should be “the last link” in blocking people from obtaining one of the ingredients they must have to make methamphetamine.
“It gives us the teeth to actually do something about making meth,” Harp said.
Leslie Harvey, a pharmacist at Jerry’s Pharmacy, demonstrated how the program works and said it will allow pharmacists to do their job without trying to guess whether someone is buying cold and allergy medicines for the right reasons.
If the computer system says a person cannot buy the medication, she said, the pharmacist cannot sell it to them. If they did, the pharmacist could face legal repercussions.
Harp said the goal of such legislation is not to prevent someone with sinus or allergy problems from getting medicine that might alleviate their condition.
“But if someone buys five boxes of cold medicine at three pharmacies in one day, there’s no way they need that much,” he said.
The amount of meth made in local labs, Harp said, is a very small percentage of the meth that makes its way into Etowah County. But it’s still essential that law enforcement work to eliminate meth making on the local level.
“Every meth cook is a hazardous waste site,” Harp said, that has to be cleaned up at great cost. The dangers of the substances used and the process of making the illegal drug make it an issue of public health and safety.