Iowa Officials Cook Up Plan to Crack Down on Meth

Drug officials in Iowa, who have seen success in the last two years curbing methamphetamine labs, would like lawmakers to consider electronic tracking of meth's main ingredient.

State narcotics officials, including former Iowa drug czar Marvin Van Haaften, have been encouraging state leaders to create a real-time database that would notify pharmacists when individuals try to buy more than the legal limit of pseudoephedrine.

The decongestant is contained in many cold and allergy medicines, and is also a key ingredient in meth.

"What has happened is that girlfriends, buddies and friends of meth cooks will go from pharmacy to pharmacy buying boxes of it," Van Haaften said. "Five or six people can get enough for a cook. Of course, we always knew this could happen, but I'm a little surprised it did."

It's impossible to produce meth without pseudoephedrine, or its already-illegal cousin, ephedrine, drug experts say.

In May 2005, a law change made the over-the-counter medicine a controlled substance in Iowa. Consumers could no longer purchase more than 7,500 milligrams of pseudoephedrine products at pharmacies in a 30-day period without a doctor's prescription.

Buyers were also required to show state identification and sign paper logs to buy medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

Drug officials say the new restrictions scared off many people who used to buy numerous packages of the medicine to assist meth cooks, and labs, as well as problems related to them, declined dramatically afterward.

As of last month, the number of meth labs seized by authorities statewide averaged 28. In 2004, before pseudoephedrine sales were restricted to pharmacies, an average of 125 labs were seized each month statewide.

Drug officials hope for an electronic database, which they peg as the next step in fighting meth, has its detractors, including Marty Ryan, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Ryan said narcotics officials have already wiped out most of the meth lab problem. He believes officials should move on to other, more important issues, such as tracking the large amount of meth that still flows into the state from California and Mexico, rather than tracking the purchases of innocent people.

But Ken Carter, head of the state's narcotics bureau, said it would be difficult for police to compare paper logs from hundreds of pharmacies to figure out which individuals are going from pharmacy to pharmacy, buying more than the legal monthly limit.

An electronic database would alert pharmacists when people have purchased more than their monthly limit at other pharmacies. Those who had would simply be turned away, and no criminal investigation would be necessary.

"This is for prevention, not law enforcement," Carter said. "We're not going to be out hunting pharmacists or pharmacies. We want to stop the flow of pseudoephedrine."