Cold Medicines Become a Hot Commodity


Meth Labs Production boom in California from rise in drug store sales

dscn08632One spring afternoon last year, three friends piled into a maroon Nissan Sentra and cruised through the gritty neighborhoods around LAX, up to Mid-City, along the tony streets of West LA and finally ending near the beaches of Santa Monica that evening. Along their route the trio, Daniel Hernandez, Kenia Munguia and her boyfriend Edwin Alas, visited twelve different CVS locations, a national drugstore chain, purchasing boxes of cold medicine at each store.

Unbeknownst to them, a team of detectives from a multiagency task force were tracking their every move, pulling empty pill boxes and receipts from trashcans and checking store logs to build a case against the three for pseudoephedrine “smurfing,” a practice that provides the main supply for production of the highly potent synthetic and addictive drug methamphetamine.

Pseudoephedrine, a chemical decongestant used in general cold medicines such as Claritin, Sudafed and Aleve, is only one molecule away from that of methamphetamine, making it the ideal ingredient for meth lab production.

smurfing-map Large-scale clandestine meth labs are on the rise in the Golden State due to an increase in “smurfing” a decade after a crackdown on meth production. In 2008, 153 clandestine meth labs were busted in California, up from 128 in 2007 – the lion's share were using cold medicines purchased legally. According to the state Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, smurfing costs the state $114 million annually in law enforcement, public services and health services.

Though smurfing is prevalent nationwide, Special Agent Gary Boggs of the DEA, the federal drug enforcement agency, says the State's situation is grave: “California is one of the epicenters of this type of activity.” According to Boggs, smurfed pseudoepedrine is now the main supply source for clandestine meth labs across the country,which are also on the rise: there were 5,859 lab incidents in 2008, up from 5,488 in 2007. The DEA maintains that a crackdown on smurfing is the most effective way to roll back meth production.

Over the past decade, methamphetamine use has replaced crack as the United States' most notorious drug. Methamphetamine, the second most used drug worldwide, is traditionally prevalent in the western U.S, though it has spread throughout the rest of the country to a lesser degree. It is a highly addictive drug that can be ingested, snorted, smoked or taken orally. In 2005, a RAND Corporation study stated methamphetamine use cost the United States an estimated $23 billion annually in criminal justice, environmental clean up, addiction treatment, healthcare and other fields.

“Smurfing” is a direct and remarkably effective response to the federal restrictions that Congress set during a mushrooming meth problem in the first half of the decade. Individuals were only allowed to purchase 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day, or 9 grams every 30 days. Criminal organizations used recruiters to gather ordinary people (often unemployed, homeless or undocumented) and drive them to multiple pharmacy locations to purchase the maximum legal amount. The term, which refers to the blue-skinned dwarves of a popular children's cartoon, was initially used by law enforcement in money laundering cases where several people deposited or transferred ill-gotten cash to a “clean” account.

“We just didn't pay attention to it because we thought smurfing was small potatoes,” said Detective Rick Gutierrez of the Los Angeles Police Department that headed the LA IMPACT team that investigated the Alas-Hernandez-Mungia ring. When patrol officers kept turning up bags of unmarked white pills during street stops, LAPD decided to take a second look. “We realized that there were pounds and pounds of this stuff that were being bought every day,” said Det. Gutierrez, who also heads the Los Angeles County clandestine lab investigative team.

Hernandez and Mungia were tailed by the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Task Force (LA IMPACT) for almost two months, during which they continued to purchase pseudoephedrine and recruited two additional people, Rogelio Antonio Ramirez and Carlos Mendez, into their enterprise. According to court documents, the ring purchased 7,720.5 grams of pseudoephedrine from LA County pharmacies enough to supply about 13.5 pounds of methamphetamine worth more than $200,000 at current street prices.

LA IMPACT detectives arrested four of the five suspects on June 13, 2008 after observing yet another buying spree. The same day, they were charged by the US Attorney for Central California with violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

Ramirez and Mendez plead guilty and are awaiting sentencing; Mungia's trial is ongoing.

Easy to Get, Hard to Catch

Over-the-counter cold medicine was not always a supply source for meth manufacturers: Since the drug's emergence in the 1960s, federal and state authorities have played an elaborate game of whack-a-mole with drug traffickers. In the 1960s, biker gangs like the Hell's Angels made the drug with bulk ephedrine shipped into the U.S., when the substance was loosely regulated. When the import of large amounts of ephedrine was tightened during the 1980s, meth labs turned to commercial energy pills containing psuedoephedrine for their supply.

After the DEA and local law enforcement shut down many of these operations during the 1990s, traffickers moved production overseas to Canada and Mexico. Mexico's laws governing ephedrine imports were so loose that that 240 tons of pseudoephedrine was allowed into Mexico in 2004. Escalating drug violence prompted President Felipe Calderon to tighten laws in 2007, limiting ephedrine imports to zero tons in 2008. Canada also revised its ephedrine regulations to combat the proliferation of meth labs in its western provinces.

States other than California are dealing with large-scale meth production as well. Missouri reported 1,251 lab incidents in 2008, the most in the nation, with Indiana and Tennessee following behind with 692 and 479 incidents, respectively.

However, smurfing in California has attracted law enforcement's attention because of the drug's popularity in the state, its profitability and the region's extensive transportation network.

Los Angeles has become a collection point for pseudoephedrine smurfers from as far afield as Arizona and Nevada, according to Det. Gutierrez. Pills either make their way up to the Central Valley or are sent back down to meth labs in Mexico, and rings are especially prevalent along the state's northern tier.

“Through the monthly checks with pharmacies we can find mom-and-pop labs,” said Jackie Long, a special agent supervisor with the California Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. Long's officers check store logs for repeat buyers of pseudoephedrine products, tail suspects, use computer software and other electronic surveillance methods to track smurfers' movements. One group Long's team tracked began buying pseudoephedrine in the Bay Area and continued as far north as Redding and as far east as Reno, Nevada.

Smurfers plan out their routes well ahead of time and hit as many pharmacies as possible in a given region. Long's agents have found Thomas road guides in smurfers' cars with all the pharmacies in a region marked out. Other agencies report smurfers are also turning to GPS units to plot their routes. Participants are paid anywhere from $100 dollars a day to visit 20 to 25 stores, or $1 dollar per box.

Such heavy demand for pseudoephedrine is profitable for both pharmaceutical companies and retailers. There are anecdotal reports of California pharmacies receiving their weekly supply of pseudoephedrine early in the morning and selling out their stock by noon the same day. What's more, BNE's Long says that pharmacists at some California stores have told his agents that the corporate parent pushes them to keep selling pseudoephedrine, even though the store workers know the medicine is being bought by smurfers. Pharmaceutical retailers deny this.

Investigating just one organization will take at least one month and involves an intricate game of cat-and-mouse. Long says smurfers have adapted to pressure from law enforcement by using counter surveillance measures, such as car and people switches. Even if his team is able to arrest the head of a buying ring, BNE agents have a difficult time extracting information about the meth labs they supply. “Shot callers never tell us what's going on, they'll just take their [jail time],” said Long. “It's been very difficult to take investigations to the next level.”

Big Money, Little Regulation

Regulating these over the counter medicines has proven to be very difficult. One possible bill SB 484, which would put pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter and require a prescription for purchase, died in the California Assembly due to strong opposition from pharmaceutical companies and retailers.

According to a data analysis by, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that tracks the effect of campaign contributions on legislation, state senators who voted against SB-484 received an average of $49,782 from the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry over the last six years. That is 2.5 times more than the average of $19,424 received by senators who voted for the bill.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and retailers declined to disclose their profits from pseudoephedrine products.

SB 484 was based on similar legislation passed by Oregon in 2006. Meth lab incidents in the state dropped from 473 in 2003 (the last year pseudoephedrine products were available without a prescription) to 19 in 2008.

Drug makers take the stance that consumers should have access to cold medicine.dscn08631

Law enforcement have a different view on the issue. “They see this [SB 484] as potentially jeopardizing profits” from pseudoephedrine products, said BNE Assistant Chief Kent Shaw. BNE claims industry protests about reduced access to cold medicine are a red herring because alternatives to pseudoephedrine are already on the market. Around 2004, Phenylephrine cold medicines were marketed as an alternative to pseudoehprine. Although it is less effective, phenylephrine cannot be converted into methamphetamine.

Law enforcement agencies are pushing for more help from pharmacies to help track and find patterns by enrolling in Methcheck, a private database of pseudoephedrine purchases providing live-time data. At least one chain was pressured to adopt Methcheck: In January 2009, Rite Aid , a national chain of drug stores, agreed to pay $5 million in civil penalties as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice for improperly selling pseudoephedrine products at 53 stores nationwide As part of Rite Aid's 2009 settlement with the Department of Justice, the chain implemented Methcheck nationwide.

Police departments across California are juggling their normal duties with smurfing investigations at a time of significant budget cuts and reduced resources. The California Department of Justice is “down bodies,” says Jackie Long. In Los Angeles, Det. Gutierrez's task force handles so many smurfing investigations that they cannot devote enough attention to oxycontin abuse, another recent trend.

Gutierrez, who has been working meth cases for the past twelve years, says the solution is simple. “There's no mystery to this – regulate it. It wouldn't cost the taxpayer a cent.”

Ali Winston is a freelance journalist. His writing and photographs have appeared in The Nation, The Indypendent, The Star-Ledger of Newark, and the Jersey Journal. He is a student at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a graduate of the University of Chicago, with honors degrees in History and International Studies.

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