The first multimedia story in a series exploring the issue of meth in the Southwest.
LAS VEGAS -- When customers at pharmacies try to buy cold and allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine, they must sign a log, show identification and can only buy a limited amount. That’s a result of a 2005 federal law to discourage drug traffickers from exploiting those pills to make the drug methamphetamine.
But here in the Southwest, criminal rings are finding ways to get large quantities of pseudoephedrine from pharmacies to funnel to large meth labs in California.
When Dennis Baltazar worked as a pharmacist at a CVS pharmacy in Las Vegas a couple years ago, he was well aware of the proper protocol to sell pseudoephedrine.
“There is only limited amounts you can give to them,” Baltazar said. “As well as getting their ID and information to be scanned.” Instead of paper logs, major retailers like CVS use electronic tracking systems that are supposed to ensure each customer does not buy over the legal limit of 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine a day or 9 grams a month.
But it wasn’t long before he observed a problem: A series of customers, one after another, would request pseudoephedrine products. By working as a group, they hoped to leave the store with multiple boxes of the medicine.
“And it becomes repetitive,” Baltazar said. “And sooner or later you realize that it is not just for regular nasal congestion products that they are using that for.”
Other pharmacists working in the Las Vegas area described the same phenomenon. Police nickname those shoppers, who buy pseudoephedrine medications for the black market or drug production “smurfers.”
“There have been organizations that have employed more than 100 individuals in multiple states, whose sole purpose from sun up to sun down is to go around and buy as much pseudoephedrine as possible,” said Kent Shaw, who works for California’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, a division of the state’s Department of Justice.
There are smurfers who buy pseudoephedrine to make small batches of meth themselves – a trend that is growing in the South and Midwest. But according to Shaw, here in the Southwest, the bigger problem is rings of organized smurfers who deliver pseudoephedrine pills to large California meth labs.
Detective Paul Lauko followed one of those smurfing rings in Phoenix as part of an investigation by Arizona’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. He found 100 people buying boxes of pseudoephedrine and selling them to a few pill brokers.
“They would go from anywhere from five to 10 to 15 stores a day,” Lauko said. “We later determined through our investigation that they were getting anywhere from $25 to $30 a box.”
Typically, the medications cost anywhere from $6 to $10 at the pharmacy.
The smurfers would work in small groups. To get around the legal limits, they would visit different stores that couldn't track how much they had already purchased at other retailers. Or they used fake IDs. The ring could bring in several hundred, even thousands of boxes a week.
Lauko said the pill brokers would drive out to California’s Central Valley once-a-week to deliver the pills to Mexican meth cookers there who would make 10 pounds of meth a batch.
That much methamphetamine requires a tremendous amount of pseudoephedrine pills. That’s why Shaw, from California’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said the meth cookers don’t just rely on California smurfers.
“It often involves our neighboring states, to include, usually, Nevada and Arizona,” Shaw said. The meth made this way in California is much more potent and popular than most of the meth coming in from Mexico – where pseudoephedrine is banned. So law enforcement officials worry that this smurfing problem will only get worse.
“There is a huge amount (of meth) that comes from Mexico,” said Neil Rombardo, the District Attorney in Carson City, Nevada. “But there is a huge amount created in the U.S. that is far better product that the illicit drug user wants to use.”
Discoveries of meth labs in California or the rest of the Southwest have not been going up. But Rombardo and Shaw said that could be because fewer law enforcement units are looking for them, due to limited resources.
They both estimate that at least half of all pseudoephedrine sold in the U.S. is diverted to make meth, a claim that is impossible to verify.
But the case of CVS pharmacies does shed some light on the scope of the issue.
The chain was the target of a federal investigation in 2008 because it failed to effectively block multiple sales of pseudoephedrine in California and Nevada. The problem, which was different from the one Baltazar described, was the result of a loophole in the store’s electronic tracking system that allowed customers to make several separate pseudoephedrine purchases in a day.
Last fall, CVS agreed to pay the federal government a $75 million fine and implement stricter controls. When they fixed the problem, law enforcement reviewed how it impacted sales. The results were dramatic: A random study of 11 stores in Los Angeles showed that sales of pseudoephedrine fell 88 percent.
“What it tells us is, is that this is an industry that isn't capable of regulating itself because there is too much greed involved in it,” Shaw said.
A CVS spokesman declined an interview, but reiterated in an email statement that the chain had since improved its practices to monitor pseudoephedrine sales.
Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, no longer rely on retailers to police sales. They require doctors’ prescriptions for any sales of pseudoephedrine.
But when 16 other states, including California and Nevada, tried to pass a similar law this year, they failed after intense opposition from the pharmaceutical industry.
As for Dennis Baltazar, he no longer has to worry about smurfers coming into his pharmacy. He now works at Wellcare Pharmacy, a small local chain in Las Vegas that doesn’t carry any pseudoephedrine products unless a patient orders it.
“They know that we don't have it,” Baltazar said. “It is a lot easier that way.”