Detractors question effectiveness of meth strategy

A new ordinance, voted for by the majority of Clovis’ City Commissioners, is designed to make it more difficult for local methamphetamine manufacturers to get a key ingredient for the drug. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Phyllis Roberts is worried she might be pegged as a meth producer. Some of the signs are there: She buys cold medicine in bulk quantities and lives on a reclusive ranch six miles outside Elida.

What else could she be doing out there?

Well, sneezing and sniffling a lot, the city of Clovis employee said. During allergy season, she and her husband depend on pseudoephedrine-based medicine to keep their sinuses clear.

“He probably takes four tablets per day, I probably take two tablets a day,” she said Wednesday. “We probably buy six boxes a week, easily. A lot of time I’ll pick up two or three boxes while I’m in town.”

Clovis is considering passing an ordinance that will place increased scrutiny on those who buy quantities of hard-pill or powder-form pseudoephedrine-based medicine, which can be used to make methamphetamine.

“My concern is with us buying what we buy, and living so far out, that’s going to put us on top of someone’s list,” she said. “We would like to be thought of as members of the community” of Elida, where they moved in December.

“I don’t think that will do very well for our standing if the sheriff is on our doorstep checking us out.”

A majority of Clovis’ city commissioners voted July 7 to introduce the ordinance that would require pseudeophedrine-based drugs be kept behind the counter at local stores and pharmacies. Additionally, buyers will be required to provide their name, address and other information before they can buy the medicine.

Roberts’ concerns have been echoed by other community members, who say the new ordinance would penalize law-abiding citizens for the illicit activity of meth producers.

The purpose of the ordinance is to make it more difficult for local methamphetamine manufacturers to get the key ingredient for their drug, said Commissioner Fred Van Soelen, who is also a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office.

“By limiting the number of purchases and by requiring some sort of registration … you are going to scare off those who are going to use it for meth,” he said. Meth users are notoriously paranoid, he said.

Oklahoma passed a similar law last year and officials there said it has been an overwhelming success.

“We have seen about a 90 percent reduction in meth labs in Oklahoma,” said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

Oklahoma’s Legislature has wholeheartedly endorsed the anti-meth legislation. In fact, not a single state senator or state representative voted against the measure during the 2004 legislative session. This year, they unanimously endorsed legislation that expanded the scope of the original law.

But a similar bill introduced in the New Mexico Legislature this year failed before it ever got through a House committee.

Former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, an outspoken critic of Clovis’ proposed ordinance, says there were just too many questions about privacy rights and the viability of the legislation that couldn’t be answered.

“I spent several years working on drug issues with the state of New Mexico,” Bradley said. “I was at the legislative session this last year when there was a bill to do this for the state. It was in committee, and it couldn’t get out of committee because of the questions that are out there.”

Van Soelen said he sympathizes with the privacy-rights argument, but the community will gain much more than it loses if the ordinance succeeds and wipes out meth labs in the area. The ordinance does not grant probable cause for a police search, he said. But police can take a pharmacy’s logs and begin an investigation on an individual suspected of producing meth.

Privacy rights aside, some question whether the law would prevent meth producers from getting the ingredients they need.

Woodward said drug makers in Oklahoma have found ways around that state’s law. He said small groups of people trying to obtain pseudoephedrine will participate in a practice called “smurfing,” in which they simultaneously hit several stores to gather the precursors for the drug.

Another question is how much methamphetamine is produced in home labs, and how much comes from outside the country. A report from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, written to encourage a comprehensive approach to curb meth use, states that only about 20 percent of the nation’s methamphetamine is produced in small, home-based labs. The remaining quantities arrive from “super labs” in Mexico and California, the report states.

Some say the ordinance will clamp down on home-cooked meth, but won’t end the addiction. However, Woodward said the price of street meth forces some addicts out of the drug market altogether.

“We have talked to numerous meth cooks who said they have just quit, and they can’t afford it to buy it,” Woodward said. To back this assertion, he said an ounce of meth can be home cooked in Oklahoma for about $43 in supplies and ingredients. He said an ounce on the street will cost $800 to $1,000.

Woodward said there has also been a noticeable drop in other crimes related to the manufacture of meth in Oklahoma, such as the larceny of agriculture chemicals used in the cooking process. Other benefits include fewer children exposed to meth production have to be put in foster care, he said, and fewer chemical and heat burns resulting from manufacturing accidents.

But a survey conducted by Buzzeo PDMA for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores seemingly contradicts some of what Woodward says in support of the anti-meth legislation. The report was compiled from interviews with local police, sheriff’s departments, district attorney investigators and state police in Oklahoma.

One conclusion drawn from interviews with Oklahoma law enforcement is that “the reduction in labs in the state has not resulted in a corresponding reduction in methamphetamine availability, addiction or related crimes.”

The report also discusses what the Oklahoma law has done to neighboring communities. For instance, in border town Fort Smith, Ark., the police department reports that lab seizures decreased by about 50 percent after the legislation was enacted. Conversely meth from Mexico was much more available and is posing a great challenge to law enforcement in that town, the report states.

Roman Romero, a member of the Region Five Drug Task Force in eastern New Mexico, confirmed that much of the meth used in this community is imported — “If an illegal alien can jump the border, I’m pretty sure illegal drugs can jump the border,” he said — but the ordinance, even if it only cut down the home-cook meth labs, would have a positive effect.

“Is it a pain in the butt we have to do this because there is a small portion of the community that doesn’t care about the community as a whole? Yeah, it sucks, it’s not cool,” he said. “(But) how would you like your next-door neighbor cooking meth, creating a poisonous gas” and causing health problems?

Clovis’ proposed ordinance will also save taxpayer money, Romero said. Dismantling an operable meth lab can cost between $5,000 and $25,000 each time.

One local pharmacist believes the pharmaceutical industry is already taking steps to reduce methamphetamine production, which may be more viable than a city ordinance.

“While I admire the spirit and the attention of the City Commission, I just don’t see where it accomplishes anything,” said Jim Herman, owner of Medicine Shoppe in Clovis. “The commission, despite their best intention, does not have the scope of authority to stop the problem.”’

Herman said drug companies are already taking steps to substitute pseudoephedrine with another chemical — phenylephrine — that can’t be extracted to make illicit drugs.
“It’s a huge problem,” he said. “The (Federal Drug Administration) is working on it. The New Mexico board of pharmacy is working on it and the pharmaceutical companies are working on it.”

Others think harsher penalties for meth producers is the answer.

“I definitely support what the district attorney is trying to do, as far as reduce methamphetamine, but I think they are just going about it the wrong way,” said Roberts, who suggested strengthening penalties might be a better solution.

In the last 12 months the city has busted four labs, Romero said; three of those were the same person. This fact, raised at Monday’s task-force meeting to discuss the ordinance, irked some attendees, including Bradley.

“My concern is, are we doing all that we can to attack the criminals before we start invading personal privacy privileges of our citizens?” Bradley asks. “If you are going to take a citizen’s rights and privileges away from them, will it make a difference?”

Bradley said the focus should be on stiffening penalties for meth production to stop repeat offenders.

Romero said he agreed the state statute needs to be strengthened to keep more producers off the streets, but that doesn’t do away with the need for the proposed ordinance.

“This weekend some people came from Muleshoe and got busted stealing Sudafed from Wal-Mart,” he said, adding that if Texas passed stricter laws Clovis could see more traffic come across the state line. “It’s nothing but a hop, skip and a jump to cross that border.”

A task force formed to inspect the ordinance will meet again this week.

The main provisions of the ordinance:
• Only applies to hard-pill and powder-form of the pseudoephedrine-based drugs

• Buyers will have to provide name, address and license number

• Affected forms of medicine will be placed behind the counter

• Maximum of three boxes per transaction

Source: Fred Van Soelen, city commissioner