With binoculars in hand, Agent Mike Hall scours an Athens pharmacy through his truck’s window while “Tainted Love” softly plays in the background.
He sets the binoculars in the console, between himself and his partner, Agent Angie Gibson, as the two wait for a smurfer to appear.
“Watch for red hair with green T-shirt” crackles through the radio.
Minutes later, the suspect walks out the front door of the pharmacy, a small plastic bag dangling from one hand, climbs into a car and drives off.
“Hold on,” Agent Hall said, stepping on the gas. The chase is on, but he’s not trying to grab the woman immediately. Instead, he follows her, sees where she goes, watches who she meets, files it away for the future.
Twice a week, Agent Hall, director of the 10th Judicial Meth Task Force, and several of his agents stake out local pharmacies, looking to catch smurfers — people who travel to different pharmacies buying ingredients used to cook meth.
The end goal of the hunt is to strong-arm the smurfers to work as informants and lead the agents to meth labs, where drugs can be seized.
Tennessee Lab seizures
2008 — 815
2009 — 1,437
Georgia Lab seizures
2008 — 152
2009 — 165
Source: Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Per county in the area:
County 2008 2009
Bledsoe 2 4
Grundy 3 11
Hamilton 32 85
Marion 6 19
McMinn 55 150
Meigs 7 27
Polk 6 10
Rhea 1 17
Sequatchie 12 29
Source: Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force
The 10th Judicial Task Force, which covers Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, investigates about 300 to 350 smurfers each year.
In 2005, Tennessee took an aggressive front to catch smurfers by mandating that all pharmacies keep a log of anyone who buys restricted drugs, including pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in several behind-the-counter cold medicines. But the laws on these sales need to be revised, officials said.
Because of the ease of the “shake n’ bake” method used to cook meth and the low price of pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient, law enforcement can’t keep up with the amount of people who buy the legal drug, only to sell to meth cooks, Agent Hall said.
“We’re losing ground,” he said. “But it’s not from lack of trying.”
Each night that Agent Hall’s task force stakes out a pharmacy, they make contact with between eight and 10 smurfers, he said.
When Agent Hall stops a smurfer leaving a pharmacy, he lets them know their sentence will be lightened if they work with the police. Then he uses the informant to find the meth lab.
Regardless of whether the smurfer agrees to work with the agency, Agent Hall usually doesn’t arrest them at the stakeout. But he will charge them for promotion of manufacturing methamphetamine and they are arrested once an indictment is issued by a grand jury.
During his surveillance of the woman with red hair, he was able to make three smurfer contacts and charged two men with the promotion of methamphetamine.
A person can legally buy three packs — or about 9 grams of pseudoephedrine — per month, but the law is still open for interpretation, said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force. Some interpret the law to mean that a person can buy three packs of pseudoephedrine at each pharmacy, not as the legal limit per person per month, he said.
If indicted for promotion of manufacturing methamphetamine, the charge is a Class “D” Felony which is punishable by no less than two years and no more than 12 years in jail, with a fine of less than $5,000.
Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press Drug Task Force Director Mike Hall questions John Maddox and Jimmy Ratliff on suspicion to promote the manufacturing of methamphetamine after Officer Hall observed the two in suspicious behavior with other possible "smurfers" in an Athens, Tenn., parking lot. The two denied any wrongdoing.
But it’s almost impossible to prove a smurfer has exceeded the limit unless pharmacies log the buyers in the same database, Agent Farmer said. Currently, pharmacies can log a buyer’s identification information manually or through an electronic database.
He said his agency powers a free computer database — which updates in real time — that’s available to both law enforcement agencies and to the pharmacists.
When Agent Hall’s task force is staking out a pharmacy, Agent Gibson will type the name of a suspect into the Tennessee Meth Task Force database. If the suspect has exceeded the legal limit, the system will red flag that person.
While many chain pharmacies use the database, some have contracted with the Kentucky-based company Appriss, which runs a database called MethCheck.
But if pharmacies use the private Appriss database, agents don’t have immediate access to it, which they say slows their ability to prove that somebody has purchased more than the legal limit of pseudoephedrine.
In the last six months, Appriss changed its policy and now gives the database information to police by request, said Jim Acquisto, a company spokesman.
Local task force agents say several bills circulating in the Tennessee General Assembly could help with some of the road blocks to meth busting.
If enacted, Senate Bill 3476 would specify the legal limit of pseudoephedrine per month and require all pharmacies to log buyers into an electronic database, said Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, who sponsored the bill.
The bill is set to be reviewed in the Senate’s Health and Human Resources committee on Wednesday.
Under the bill, pharmacies would be required to use their own databases or the one powered by the Tennessee Meth Task Force, Sen. Jackson said.
Logging buyers electronically would take more work, but the process is already tedious, said Brad Standefer, who owns Access Pharmacy on Hixson Pike.
While he agrees that both law enforcement and the pharmacies need to work together, he “would like to see stiffer penalties for people making meth ... rather than trying to regulate on this end.”
In Georgia, Walker and Catoosa counties are the perfect hub for smurfers to cross the state line and buy all the necessary ingredients to make meth, then go back to Tennessee to sell the products to the meth cooks, said Larry Black, commander of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force.
Law enforcement agencies in Georgia do not have the resources, equipment or the legislation to compare to Tennessee’s, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Rusty Grant, who is in charge of the Canton Regional Drug Office.
In 2009, 1,437 meth labs were seized in Tennessee, Meth Task Force reports show. In comparison, 165 meth labs were seized in Georgia in 2009, GBI reports show.
In Tennessee, McMinn County alone had 150 meth seizures reported last year.
There is no Georgia law currently requiring pharmacies and stores to use an electronic database similar to Tennessee’s, Agent Grant said.
A Georgia Senate bill that would have required pharmacies to electronically log pseudoephedrine buyers into a database powered by the GBI was rolled from last year and is “still alive” this year, said Rick Allen, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency deputy director.
Mr. Black said the legislation is only the beginning to fixing the problem.
“We need help in Georgia,” he said. “(We can’t) aggressively go after them until we get help from legislators.”
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...