GREENFIELD — Hancock County pharmacists refused to sell nearly 300 boxes of over-the-counter cold medicine in the first six months of 2016 after customers were red-flagged for exceeding limits for pseudoephedrine purchases.
But what lawmakers believed would hinder the manufacture and use of methamphetamine — an essential ingredient of which is pseudoephedrine-based medication — hasn’t been as helpful to investigators as originally hoped, local police say.
Despite various legislation aimed at regulating pseudoephedrine sales put in place since 2006, the number of meth labs found statewide continues to climb (from 1,488 in 2014 to 1,530 in 2015); and local investigators say the number of people prosecuted for possessing the drug has almost doubled in the last year, suggesting meth use is on the rise in Hancock County.
Forty-six people were caught with meth and charged with possession in 2016, records show — up from just three in 2012.
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Those Hancock County drug users chasing a high seem to believe methamphetamine is a safer alternative to heroin and other narcotics, said Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart, the department’s chief deputy. Some local drug users have told the department’s undercover drug investigators they made the switch from heroin to meth after hearing the overdose risks heroin poses, Burkhart said.
And a national log aimed at helping police track those who regularly purchase meth’s main ingredient isn’t generating enough leads to truly combat the problem, local law enforcement officers say. It seems users will stop at no lengths to get their hands on the drug’s most key components.
“It’s completely crazy the stuff that goes into (meth),” Burkhart said. “They use pseudoephedrine, they use battery acid, they use anhydrous (ammonia fertilizer) … and once you try it, you’re on it. You try it one time and you’re hooked.”
The National Precursor Log Exchange tracks sales of all over-the-counter drugs containing pseudoephedrine and the names of buyers who were turned away.
Pharmacists — who as of 2016 could turn any sale down to a person they deemed suspicious — are required to submit the names of those would-be buyers to the log, said Krista McCormick, a spokeswoman for the Appriss, the company that created the software that powers the log.
The software is updated in real time, which company leaders say gives police a tool to be proactive in their investigations, McCormick said.
But local law enforcement officers say the log is cumbersome to use and provides them few leads to aid in their criminal investigations. It’s helpful when officers are trying to collect evidence — but only if they already know the name of a suspected drug dealer and can use the log to build their case.
Without a suspect name, the log does little to help detectives track down meth users and dealers, said Detective Lt. Randy Ratliff, the head of the Greenfield Police Department’s investigations unit.
If police are tipped off that a person might be using meth or buying the ingredients to make and sell it, the log can be very helpful in gathering evidence against that person, Ratliff said. Otherwise, the log is just a long list of thousands of people who have been prevented from buying cold medicines, and there is no way to know if the purchase was blocked because a person appeared to be a meth-user or if they’d been fighting a particularly persistent cold that month, he said.
It’s those people — law-abiding Hancock County residents with particularly pesky allergies or illnesses — that Dave Bush said he is most commonly forced to bar from buying over-the-counter drugs at his business, Medicap Pharmacy in Greenfield.
Bush estimates he’s prevented fewer than a dozen customers in the last year from buying pseudoephedrine-based medicines.
Each time, it’s been one of his regulars, someone he knows well and has been treating for years, who is buying medicine for themselves or a sick family member, but they hit the state’s monthly legal limit — 7.2 grams, which is fewer than five 24-dose boxes of Sudafed.
Bush said retail pharmacy chains with large customer bases likely decline sales more often as they follow regulations state lawmakers put in place last year.
Indiana is the second state in the nation to put pharmacists on the front lines of the war on meth, according to The Associated Press. Arkansas implemented a similar measure, calling on pharmacists to deny sales to anyone they suspect is buying for illegal purposes, in 2011. The state’s meth lab seizures dropped from 281 that year to 43 in 2014, the AP reported.
Law enforcement officials say they’re anxiously waiting to see whether Indiana’s new law will have a similar effect.
Investigators worry the only way to truly loosen meth’s grip on the state is to impose even stricter regulations on pseudoephedrine-based medicines, such as requiring a prescription for medicines like Claritin, Mucinex and Sudafed.
Ratliff believes the only way to completely deter meth-makers is to require anyone who buys pseudoephedrine to obtain a doctor’s prescription before the purchase is authorized, though he recognizes such a regulation would create a heavy burden for those just looking to treat the common cold.
“I understand why the state lawmaker did what they did … but (having a prescription) would mean inconveniencing the criminal, as well.”
State and federal lawmakers have tried since the early 2000s to make it more difficult for those looking to make meth to get their hands on the ingredients. Laws include:
- In 2006, changes in federal law put all pseudoephedrine-based drugs behind pharmacy counters. Lawmakers also limited the amount customers could purchase a month to 9 grams (roughly six 24-dose boxes of of Sudafed); required buyers to present photo ID and pharmacists to keep their customers’ personal information for at least two years.
- In 2013, Indiana legislators voted to decrease the amount of pseudoephedrine-based drugs Hoosiers could buy in a month to 7.2 grams (fewer than five 24-dose boxes of Sudafed).
- In 2016, state lawmakers gave pharmacists the power to completely block the sale of certain over-the-counter drugs to patrons they didn’t recognize or whom they deemed suspicious.