Ordinance cuts into 'smurf' turf: More cities requiring prescription for pseudoephedrine-based medicines

Ordinance cuts into 'smurf' turf: More cities requiring prescription for pseudoephedrine-based medicines

December 9th, 2013 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

A number of Tennessee municipalities now require people who want to buy products containing pseudoephedrine to first get a prescription. Sudafed and other common nasal decongestants contain pseudoephedrine, which methamphetamine makers use.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

'PSEUDO' GOES PX-ONLY

The following Tennessee cities that have passed an ordinance that makes cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine and its derivatives available only with a doctor's prescription:

Winchester

Decherd

Huntland

Estill Springs

Cowan

Pulaski

Monteagle

Tracy City

Altamont

Palmer

Coalmont

Decatur

Martin

Gleason

Dresden

Harriman

Lavergne

Spring City

Source: Winchester Police Department Chief Dennis Young

Since the tiny town of Huntland in Franklin County, Tenn., last June became the state's first municipality to pass an ordinance requiring a doctor's prescription to buy pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines, the idea has spread like wildfire.

In towns where the ordinance is passed, "smurfs" -- people who buy pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines from pharmacies for the clandestine production of meth -- can't buy the illicit drug precursor legally without a prescription, helping to sever that link from the supply chain.

Most of the city ordinances call for a $50 civil penalty assessed against anyone who sells the medicine to someone who doesn't have a valid prescription.

Current Tennessee law requires buyers of the cold and allergy medicines containing the precursor to show a photo ID and sign a logbook that is submitted to the state. People may not buy more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day or more than 9 grams over 30 days.

Law enforcement officials say smurfs circumvent those laws by traveling from town to town or even state to state to stay ahead of record-keeping and purchasing limits.

In 2012, about 748,000 of Tennessee's 6.4 million residents bought a product that contains pseudoephedrine, state records show. About half the purchases were diverted to make meth, officials said.

All of the cities in Franklin County, Tenn., quickly followed Huntland's lead, and the man who has spearheaded the effort, Winchester Police Chief Dennis Young, began road trips all over the state to push for passage of similar ordinances. In many of his presentations, state Methamphetamine Task Force officials and local judiciary officials joined him to talk about meth dangers and legal angles of the ordinance.

But the meth ordinance has drawn fire from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the Tennessee Municipal League and the Tennessee Municipal Attorneys Association, as well as drug companies that make cold medicine.

"TML and MTAS are of the opinion that federal and state law occupy the field in regulating these drugs and that ordinances adopted by cities would be of doubtful validity," states a correspondence sent in July to Tennessee cities from Dennis Huffer, with the Municipal Attorneys Association. "MTAS is urging cities to be cautious and obtain an Attorney General opinion approving cities' authority in this regard before adopting such an ordinance. TMAA joins MTAS in urging caution."

Tennessee's attorney general has not weighed in.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, an advocate for the healthcare products industry, supports state-level legislation because, it says, local measures are "not effective."

"Everyone involved in this debate is committed to advancing solutions to address methamphetamine production in Tennessee," association spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk said. "We believe the state legislature is best positioned to set policy for the state. Moreover, we have concerns that these efforts not only unnecessarily burden residents in certain jurisdictions but believe these initiatives have questionable legality and run counter to the spirit of the legislation passed by the Tennessee legislature in 2012."

That law, the "I Hate Meth Act," requires a prescription to buy more than the limited amount and makes cooking meth in front of children fall under the criminal charge of aggravated child endangerment.

But in some cases, passage by a neighboring town triggers action.

Spring City Manager Stephania Motes said that when Decatur, Tenn. -- on the east side of the Tennessee River in Meigs County -- passed the ordinance, smurfs descended on the Rhea County town.

"That was sort of the catalyst because we started getting a lot more traffic coming into Spring City, and so our 'pseudo' sales started going through the roof because we didn't have that ordinance and Decatur did," she said.

Motes said another motive in passing the measure was that pharmacists are forced to become the "policemen" on the front line of sales of the cold medicine meth cooks use.

"You cannot make meth without pseudoephedrine," she said. "We felt this not only helps the pharmacists out but helps in our fight against meth."

After Spring City passed the first of two readings of its ordinance in November, Dayton, Tenn., leaders set a public hearing on the idea in January to get some input from the public, according to Dayton City Recorder Thomas Solomon.

Jeff Wolfenden, owner and pharmacist at Stan's Compounding Pharmacy in Dayton, said the measure is a "sad" move and "takes away from honest people," but, compared to the meth problem, is the "lesser of two evils."

"My take is that there are always going to be these abusers out there," Wolfenden said. "They're going to find ways to get it. If it makes it harder on them to make it [meth], I'm all for it."

Tennessee Meth Task Force Director Tommy Farmer and Chief Young agree, but they say the municipal ordinance and other measures are really aimed at the labs.

The federal government allowed pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines to be sold over the counter in 1976, and Farmer and Young say the growth of domestic meth labs has continued to increase and spread as cooks made a product to compete with foreign-made meth.

Farmer said the ordinance, increased enforcement against repeat offenders and a targeted anti-meth advertising campaign are among the moves he believes are responsible for a turnaround in Tennessee.

"As of mid-November, Indiana had 1,515 meth lab seizures, Tennessee is at 1,504 and Missouri is 1,103," he said. The three states have always ranked in the top three, but Missouri, where the municipal ordinances were first passed a couple of years ago, went from ranking number one or number two to third.

The average reduction of lab seizures in Missouri towns with the ordinance stands at about 70 percent, Farmer said.

In Tennessee, "mid-term, statewide we're down 26 percent," he said.

He said if meth lab seizures remained on the same track Tennessee was on at the beginning of the year, the state would likely have tallied 2,300 by the end of 2013.

"We didn't know what those efforts were going to do," Farmer said.

"Overall, we're going to be about even [with last year] by the end of this year," he said.

Cities with the ordinance are experiencing reduction of meth labs seizures between 44 and 70 percent, a reduction of pseudoephedrine sales, a reduction in the number of children impacted by meth labs "and, finally, those cities have virtually eliminated smurfing," Farmer said.

"Whether you like it or not, whether there are issues or not, cities are doing the ordinance because they're finding it incredibly effective," he said.

Young said Spring City now is the 18th Tennessee city to pass the ordinance, and there are more than 40 others taking a serious look.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.