Warning issued on 'smurfing' as Bradley County cracks down on meth cooks

Warning issued on 'smurfing' as Bradley County cracks down on meth cooks

November 26th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Tommy Farmer, Director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force

Photo by Dick Cook

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - A group of area legislators teamed up with trade organizations - whose members sell pseudoephedrine - to tout a public awareness campaign to crack down on people who purchase the drug for methamphetamine cooks.

"Smurfing may be a new phenomenon in Tennessee, but we want to bring attention to it before it becomes any more popular," said state Sen. Mike Bell R-Riceville, at a Monday news conference.

Smurfing is the practice of meth cooks finding other people to purchase pseudoephedrine for them at pharmacies to avoid checks in the database.

The news conference was called by Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a nonprofit group protecting the interests of over-the-counter medication manufacturers as well as state lobbying groups, Tennessee Pharmacists Association, Tennessee Retail Association, Tennessee Grocer & Convenience Association and Tennessee Rural Health Association, whose members sell products containing pseudoephedrine.

However, the Bradley County sheriff and the director of the state's Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force say legislation is needed to curb the scourge of meth in the state by requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

"It's a horrible situation. Knowing what we know about this. ... We can fix this," said Tommy Farmer, director of the state's task force. "We're not going to fix the meth problem, but we can fix the meth lab problem."

Farmer, along with the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, is hopeful that state lawmakers will work to pass legislation that would require consumers to get a prescription for pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in some cold and allergy medicines. The bill has been deferred in committee but is set for consideration in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee next year.

Two states - Mississippi and Oregon - already have passed laws requiring prescriptions.

Farmer rattles off a series of figures to bolster his argument.

Authorities seized 1,504 meth labs in Tennessee this year through the end of October, he said.

"Eleven is the number of meth labs seized in Oregon and Mississippi combined. Eleven is what we do every 48 hours," he said. Tennessee, he noted, ranks third in the nation for manufacturing meth. It has remained in the top three for the past seven years.

Bradley County Sherrif Jim Ruth said the legislation is needed.

"Too many smurfs buying for people. Too many people using fraudulent driver's licenses," Ruth said.

The lawmakers at Monday's news conference said they would not support the legislation.

State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee in the House, said the state's participation in a database, the National Precursor Log Exchange, to track pseudoephedrine has been effective. He said making the drug prescription only would create a hardship for most people.

"Why make it hard on the good, hardworking law-abiding citizens?" said Watson, who is running for Bradley County sheriff.

Lab seizures in Bradley County have dropped, he said, which he cited as evidence of the effectiveness of the database blocking purchases.

From January to October in 2012, there were 58 lab seizures in Bradley County. For the same time period this year, he said there have been 18 seizures.

Ruth said there are too many ways to get around the database.

Recently Bradley County's drug unit has turned efforts to seizing Ice, a designer form of methamphetamine, coming in from Mexico, he said.

If the drug were to become a controlled substance again, Farmer said 85 percent of residents would not be affected. The drug required a prescription until the law changed in 1976.

For the first six months of this year, the database allowed pharmacists to block the purchase of 7,749 boxes of medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he opposes making the drug a prescription. It's too early to gauge to success of the database, he said.

"It's only been in effect for a year, year and a half. It needs a little bit more time to hopefully show the effects," he said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger