ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Agent Patrick Doyle combs through the loose pieces of paper in a cardboard box.

The box contains the handwritten names and addresses of those buying pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in meth. Some of the buyers use names like Mickey Mouse or other made-up characters.

Pharmacies in Tennessee are required to keep track of each pseudoephedrine buyer, and many use a state-run computer database to do so. But in Georgia, there is no such statewide database and tracking is done by individual pharmacies.

Agents with the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force must go to each store and hand collect the information, which they place in the box.

"We have to go from store to store to store," said Agent Doyle, deputy commander of the task force. "And then we have to prove that it was, in fact, that person that produced that identification to buy those pills."

And while pseudoephedrine sales are restricted to behind-the-counter in pharmacies in Tennessee, gas stations and other stores in Georgia can also sell the restricted cold medicines.

If Georgia police want to catch smurfers - people who travel to different pharmacies buying ingredients to cook meth - they have few options, Agent Doyle said.

To build a case, police must painstakingly go through handwritten records on pseudoephedrine buyers or they arrest smurfers based on tips from the pharmacists or other police agencies, he said.

Both Georgia stores and pharmacies are required to write down a buyer's identification, but the buyer can write down their name and address, and there's no guarantee they will write it down accurately, Agent Doyle said.

The main goal of catching smurfers is to strong-arm the suspects into leading police to a meth lab, officials say. Police use incentives to bring the smurfers onboard, including asking for a lighter sentence for those who work with law enforcers.

While the legal limit of pseudoephedrine a person can buy is three packs or about 9 grams per month, Georgia authorities have no easy way to regulate that limit, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Rusty Grant, who is in charge of the Canton Regional Drug Office.

meth hub

Smurfers can go store to store buying pseudoephedrine illegally and law enforcement can't prove it unless they do the laborious foot and paperwork, he said.

This makes Walker and Catoosa counties the perfect hub for smurfers to cross the state line, buy all the necessary ingredients to make meth, then go back to Tennessee to sell the products to the meth cooks, said the task force's commander Larry Black. In order to make it easier to arrest meth makers, police say they need Georgia lawmakers to step in.

A Senate bill last year would have required pharmacies to electronically log pseudoephedrine buyers into a database powered by the GBI, but the session ended before the bill was brought for a vote, said Rick Allen, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency deputy director.

The bill was rolled forward and is "still alive" this year, he said.

Mr. Black said the legislation is only the beginning of fixing the problem.

"We need help in Georgia," he said. "(We can't) aggressively go after them until we get help from legislators."

With the help of Tennessee's Methamphetamine Task Force, Georgia soon will have a system that links the different states' computer databases, but stores and pharmacies will have to volunteer the information, officials say.

"We're going to do it regardless of this bill passing or not," Agent Grant said.

across the border

Through different tactics, including the state's sophisticated database, Tennessee law enforcers continue to seize hundreds more meth labs than Georgia each year.

In 2009, 1,437 meth labs were seized in Tennessee, Meth Task Force reports show. In comparison, 165 meth labs were seized in Georgia that year, GBI reports show.

Tennessee's Hamilton County alone had 85 seizures and McMinn County had 150 seizures reported last year.

Georgia law enforcers do not have the resources, equipment or the legislation to compare to Tennessee's numbers, Agent Grant said.

"We don't have that Internet tracking like Tennessee," he said.

The Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force runs the state's database and logs about 80 percent of the pharmacies' pseudoephedrine buyers into its system, said task force director Tommy Farmer.

When Tennessee police log a suspect into the database, the person will be red flagged if he or she is over the legal limit in pseudoephedrine purchases, Agent Farmer said.

While many chain pharmacies use this database, some have contracted with the Kentucky-based company Appriss Inc., which runs a database called MethCheck.

Authorities say MethCheck creates more work because police don't have automatic access to that database.

In the last six months, Appriss changed its policy and gives the database information to police on request, said Jim Acquisto, a company spokesperson.

But Agent Farmer said the company has not been willing to work with the state agencies to share all its data with the law enforcement's system.

In Tennessee, authorities are hoping several pending bills will fix part of the problem with the current system.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT