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Number One In Meth Lab Seizures, Indiana Considers Laws To Restrict Pseudoephedrine

Pharmacy sign reads: We are proud to be part of the solution to reduce meth manufacturing in Fulton County.”
Drew Daudelin
Pharmacist Harry Webb led an effort to screen customers wishing to purchase pseudoephedrine in Fulton County, Ind.

This spring, the Indiana State Assembly will take up two bills designed to fight methamphetamine production. Indiana has been number one in the country for meth lab seizures in recent years, and state officials say they expect the same for 2015.

One proposed law would empower pharmacists to turn away suspicious customers and steer people to alternative drugs that don’t contain pseudoephedrine. The other would make pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

Attempts to pass prescription-only bills have failed in the past, but some say it’s the only way to solve the statewide problem.

One Pharmacist’s Fight

Webb’s Family Pharmacy in rural Rochester, Ind. has something you won’t see in many pharmacies — a sign behind the counter that reads “We are proud to be part of the solution to reduce meth manufacturing in Fulton County.”

“We have no money. This is a citizen’s action’s committee, it has no funding from anybody, it’s just all grassroots effort,” owner Harry Webb says.

Meth production is a relatively new problem in Indiana. In 1995, there were six lab seizures in the state. In 2014 there were almost 1,500.

Numbers shot up because of the one-pot method – a way to cook meth in small batches that requires easier-to-obtain ingredients than methods in the past. Household items like lithium batteries and drain cleaner would be hard to keep from getting into the hands of a meth cook. But drugs containing pseudoephedrine — a decongestant and a key ingredient in meth — are a different story.

Efforts have been made to legitimize pseudoephedrine sales, but they haven’t worked. In 2006 the federal government enacted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, putting the drugs behind the counter.

Indiana took that one step further in 2011 when it joined other states in using NPLEx, a digital logbook which keeps track of pseudoephedrine sales, requiring customers to sign for the drugs. It also puts a limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine a single person can buy.

Despite its intentions, meth lab seizures increased after NPLEx was implemented. According to Jeff Arnold, prosecutor in Delaware County, where more meth labs are seized than anywhere else in the state,  NPLEx  actually made things worse.

“You are a meth cooker. You have reached your limit of pseudoephedrine that you can get for the year. I’m a friend of yours, I’ve tried meth. You either pay me or give me some of your product to go out and buy pseudoephedrine so you can cook it. As a result of that you teach me how to cook meth,” Arnold says.

Those friends are known as ‘smurfs.’ Arnold says on average in Indiana each meth cook teaches about 10 others how to cook. Smurfing networks often go out in groups, hitting pharmacies one after another to gather as much product as they can.

Harry Web
Credit Drew Daudelin / IPBS
Harry Webb

  “I’ve had customers come up to the counter and say ‘Hey man, you got some 20-120’s?’ And I go, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh yeah, Sudafed 12-hour 20 pack.’ You know, when you start using street slang like that, it’s an easy spot,” Webb says.

Webb’s Family Pharmacy has made efforts to legitimize pseudoephedrine sales for years, but Webb says he was naïve in thinking other stores were doing the same. He says nearby chains like Wal-Mart were selling huge quantities every month to customers Webb says could be clearly identified as illegitimate.

“Once I realized how much they were just turning a blind eye, and not doing anything to restrict the sale, when you can have your truck come in and you get 60 boxes of pseudoephedrine 12-hour 20 packs in, and they’re gone in three hours, that’s ridiculous,” Webb says. “Totally insane that that kind of behavior was even allowed to happen.”

So he worked to get an ordinance passed in Fulton County, mandating pharmacists have a conversation with customers to steer them towards alternative medicines, and to refuse the sale if there is reason for suspicion.

To his surprise, the pharmacy at Wal-Mart agreed on all terms. Soon after other local pharmacies agreed and the ordinance passed.

“I’ve seen the impact on what [meth] is doing to our community,” Webb says. “It’s costing our county millions of dollars. There’s another argument going around, ‘Well this isn’t going to end meth.’ And no, it isn’t going to end meth. And yes, the Mexican cartels are going to bring meth into our area. This issue is trying to end meth labs.”

Taking The Fight To The Statehouse

Sen. Randy Head is the author of a new bill that would essentially turn Fulton County’s ordinance into statewide law.

“We’ve driven the smurfs out of Fulton County, but they go to neighboring counties,” Head says. “I think it’s important that we do it all over the state. If we leave some place out that’s where all the smurfs are going to go.”

Head’s bill is based on legislation passed in Arkansas four years ago. The results there have been dramatic.

The month Arkansas’ bill went into effect pseudoephedrine sales dropped 60 percent and numbers haven’t moved much since. Meth lab seizures before the bill were around 310 per year. In 2015, it was around 25.

Scott Pace, Chief Operations Officer for the Arkansas Pharmacist Association, says there were pharmacists, especially in big retailers, that pushed back against the law because they saw it as intrusive. But he says years later, most seem happy with the results.

“The people that may have wanted it to be prescription-only back in the day probably think that what we have now works just fine,” Pace says. “And while they may have preferred it to be prescription-only, they acknowledge that it’s working as it was intended to work.”

But that pushback from some pharmacists, as well as an inconvenience for genuine customers, is the crux of the argument for passing a prescription-only law in Indiana, which is getting support from the state’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Council. Council executive director Dave Powell says misinformation about what impact a prescription-only bill would have has kept it from passing in recent years.

“This is about greed from the pharmaceuticals and retailers, because you know they create this message that creates fear. And it’s not an honest message,” Powell says.

Powell says rhetoric attacking the prescription-only bill typically references “cold medicines,” a much broader drug classification than the law would concern.

Powell says pharmacists also shouldn’t be expected to perform like doctors, deciding who should be allowed to buy certain drugs. But Harry Webb says it’s a decision he as a healthcare professional feels comfortable making, and Sen. Head says he is confident most pharmacists will feel the same.

“It does deal with human nature and it’s not going to be an exact science,” Head says. “So we don’t say that this is absolutely foolproof or that the pharmacist is even going to be right every time. A lot of times they might not be. But in Fulton County what we’re finding is that pharmacies, for instance Harry’s pharmacy will sell only to previous customers, and they’re getting a control on this horrible meth lab situation that way.”

Webb says having to talk to some customers, suggesting alternative decongestants like Nexafed that he says work comparably to typical pseudoephedrine drugs, is worth doing if it could finally rid communities like his of destructive, dangerous meth labs homes.

People on both sides of the issue say they would support the other bill if theirs falls through. The most common sentiment between them is that when it comes to meth labs in Indiana, something needs to be done.