Escalating meth addictions put focus on cold medicine

Proposals to limit over-the-counter drug sales expected next legislative session

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Juneau's biggest illegal drug problem has some people asking if it should be harder to soothe the sniffles.

Some cold medications are popular enough that people with no interest in nasal decongestion are stealing them, said Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Tim Birt, who heads the region's multiagency drug-enforcement task force. "All of the stolen Sudafed is being used illegally," he said.

Even six packages of an over-the-counter nasal decongestant with ingredients such as pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanoline is enough to manufacture methamphetamine, the only illegal use of the product Birt has seen, he said.

A key ingredient in the creation of methamphetamine also is found in other decongestants, including Actifed, Drixoral, Claritin-D and some store brands.

It's been about five years since officers in Juneau have busted any meth labs, but methamphetamine remains the biggest illegal drug problem in the area, said Birt, of the Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team - SEANET. He believes about half of the addictive synthetic stimulant is imported into Juneau and the rest is made here.

With the rise of a methamphetamine problem around the country, other states are placing restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter medicines that are used to make it. Wednesday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law keeping anyone from buying more than two packages at a time.

Consumers in Washington state are limited to buying three packages in a 24-hour period. In January, they will be limited to two. Buyers must also show photo identification to prove they are at least 18 to purchase the medications, which are kept behind the counter. Since Oct. 1, the products have been behind the counter.

Proposed Alaska-wide restrictions on the nonprescription medications died in the Legislature this spring. But at least one Juneau store already limits sales to two packages and keeps the product behind the counter.

Jason Moulton, loss prevention director for Safeway's Seattle division, which includes Alaska, said it's been policy at all Safeway stores nationwide for more than a year.

"Shoplifting was a problem," he said, stressing that it isn't a problem anymore. But having previously dealt with methamphetamine enforcement while working with the FBI, Moulton said the policy also addresses the illegal use of the nonprescription medicines.

He talked to Alaska lawmakers in the spring about recommendations for an Alaska law covering the products, and he will be involved when the matter comes up in the next session, he said.

Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, said his department will consider various proposals expected to come up in the next legislative session and will make recommendations according to what should be most effective and work best within the law.

"We're in favor of any bills that would help get methamphetamine off the streets," Wilkinson said.

Moulton said there is one aspect to the Washington law that Safeway believes will be a problem and would like to see kept out of Alaska. It requires stores to keep a log of people purchasing the medications being controlled. As the requirement is written, it isn't practical and raises privacy issues, he said.

There are about 10 categories that need to be filled out, including the purchaser's name, date of birth, identification number and the amount of the medication being bought. It will be cumbersome and won't even track purchases because the information won't be tracked electronically, he explained.

Privacy could be a bigger problem, he added. Customers will be required to sign the log, which contains other buyers' personal information.

"For some reason, methamphetamine and identity theft are inseparable," he said. While an illegitimate purchaser may be using someone else's identity, he is being given access to a log with other identities that he can steal, Moulton said.

Birt said he has the authority to arrest someone found possessing six packages of Sudafed. He couldn't say if any current investigations involve possible meth labs in Juneau. But he said the use that officers are detecting and the shoplifting of pseudoephedrine products indicate they're out there.

In December 2000, SEANET officers raided a meth lab set up in a ground floor apartment of a two-story house on Mendenhall Loop Road after another family complained to the landlord about the smell.

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