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Pipe Dream? States try to snuff out meth on their own. Illinois put a lid on the ingredients

A year ago, Illinois officials had reason to be confident. As lethal and easily concocted methamphetamine overwhelmed rural communities and spread to larger cities, state lawmakers moved to restrict access to some over-the-counter cold medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, key ingredients in the homemade drug widely known as crystal meth.

Illinois, it seemed, was ahead of the game through smart politics and smart law enforcement.

But that was a year ago. Now more than a few sheriffs and police chiefs across the state, especially in towns bordering Missouri and Iowa, fear the threat posed by meth will only increase unless Illinois approves greater restrictions on who can buy what, and how much. 

"Other states are leap-frogging us with stronger laws," says Steve Mange, a senior policy adviser for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan who has tracked meth. "We're a victim of timing. We almost hurt ourselves by coming out front on this. No one has a crystal ball, but at the time we had the best bill in the country. Now we're bracing as these other states, particularly Missouri and Iowa, are jumping ahead. It's like a fire that's looking for fuel, and now there's no fuel in Iowa — and now none in Missouri — so they're looking back at Illinois."

Missouri looked to Oklahoma in designing its law. Oklahoma has reported a dramatic drop in the number of meth labs since enacting its provisions in 2003 following the deaths of three police officers, one of them executed by a meth cook. Oklahoma and Missouri require that medications containing meth ingredients be treated as controlled substances and doled out exclusively by pharmacists. 

Iowa, which boasted in March that it had enacted the nation's toughest anti-meth law, also reduced the amount of cold medicines that can be purchased at one time and required buyers of certain medicines to sign a log and show identification. And stores in that state are required to lock up any liquid form of pseudoephedrine, or keep it behind the counter. "You cannot touch any package of pseudoephedrine in our state," says Iowa's drug czar, Marvin Van Haaften. "We want to get ahead of the cooks; you have to be proactive." 

Indiana, while not as strict as Iowa, also has a tighter limit on medicine purchases than Illinois. And Wisconsin's new restrictions, which take effect this fall, will trump Illinois' regulations. But, so far, Illinois officials worry most about border hopping from Iowa and Missouri.

Some federal officials are pushing efforts to enforce uniformity to deter such movement, but some states, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, are resisting. As a result, according to the attorney general's office, laws further restricting the purchase of nonprescription cold remedies are likely to be introduced in the Illinois legislature, possibly as early as this fall. Discussions are already under way with law enforcement and other officials in Missouri and Iowa. 

As it stands, Illinois law forbids display of certain medicines, namely such cold remedies as Sudafed. Remedies that include ephedrine and pseudoephedrine must be locked up. Buyers also are limited to two packages of the medicines per trip, and the medicines must be sold in so-called blister packs, which seal each pill separately.

Like its neighbors, Illinois restricts access to adult-strength medicines whose sole ingredient is ephedrine or pseudoephedrine by moving them behind store counters. But Missouri and Kentucky, following Oklahoma's lead, also moved any solid drug that contains either ephedrine or pseudoephedrine among its ingredients. Just as important, those states put such products behind pharmacy counters. Iowa went even further, taking the advice of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other chemists who warned that meth cooks would soon use liquid forms of the medicines to counter the crackdown on tablets. That state moved liquid and gel caps behind pharmacy counters, as well. 

Illinois' law, which took effect January 1, includes new sanctions for dealers who expose children to the chemicals while mixing the drug or whose meth labs explode or catch fire. It was quickly hailed as a bold move in the battle against a seeming epidemic that had ravaged so many small towns across Illinois and the Midwest.

How's the battle going? 

An Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority study released last year shows an upward trend in drug seizures in this state. In 1994, according to the study, just 3,433 grams of meth were seized. 

By 2002, the volume had reached 28,002 grams before sliding a bit in 2003 to 26,597. The study also showed that of the 96 counties where meth was found, 72 were rural.

Figures obtained this summer by the attorney general's office showed 249 labs were seized in the first quarter of 2005, followed by another 207 in the second quarter. 

However, the information, which was initially reported to the Illinois State Police, is incomplete. Not all areas of the state had submitted data, raising fears that this year's final totals will eclipse the totals in 2004, when 909 labs were reported seized. In 2003, police cracked down on 971 labs. 

This would appear to show that the trade in methamphetamine is not subsiding despite Illinois' tougher law.

During their spring session, lawmakers approved a plan to consolidate many of Illinois' anti-meth provisions, which are scattered throughout the statutes, and to toughen penalties for lab explosions, exposure of children, and production and distribution of the drug. Last month, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the measure, which was sponsored by Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat, and Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat. Even at that, many officials, including Haine, believe the state can't sit still.

"Illinois took the lead before other states, but the fear here is we must respond to states that have, in effect, removed certain medications from easy access and made it more difficult for consumers because these fools who are making the meth will come over here. We're going to look at this in the spring."

Though he urged some caution about rushing to match Iowa or Missouri too quickly, Haine, a former prosecutor, knows how wickedly the drug can harm communities. He points to such Metro East counties across from St. Louis as Madison, where meth lab seizures spiked from just 37 in 2001 to 90 in 2003.

Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz, whose deputies and drug officers monitor towns near the Missouri border, says he has seen the meth craze increase dramatically over the past five years. 

"You see these before and after pictures of people who use this stuff, and you'd have a young girl before she started using — pretty, attractive," Hertz says. "Then you look at her after two or three years of using this stuff, and she looks like something out of a horror story. It ruins communities," he says. 

"Five years ago, if someone mentioned methamphetamine, I'd have had to ask someone what they were talking about. Now, I'm not sure it's an epidemic, but it's all over."

It's the ease of access to the drug — anyone can mix a batch from common chemicals — that makes it so insidious, he says. "If you're willing to blow up your house or burn yourself up making this stuff, you can manufacture something very potent from stuff you can buy at a Wal-Mart. You don't have to drive into a crime-depressed area and face drug dealers who might kill you. You take out the middleman."

Meth has found its way to the big cities, too, including Chicago, where police have made an increasing number of arrests and lab busts over the past two years. Gangs have started taking over the trade in some pockets of the state. And the gay and lesbian communities have suffered the effects, as it has become a craze on the party circuit.

But the small towns that dot the state remain the primary victims and the primary focus of many law enforcement efforts. And it's the border towns that get hit particularly hard when neighboring states crack down, as dealers and makers simply hop the state line to buy — or steal — the ingredients.

In addition to stealing from pharmacies, cooks raid farms for the anhydrous ammonia used on fields and then mix a batch for sale here or in their home states. Recognizing this, Illinois lawmakers last year approved the new law, which they expected would discourage border crossings and make it so difficult for makers of the drug that the problem would simply start to fade. 

But that hasn't been the case. In fact, staff with the attorney general's office, curious how the Illinois law was working, jumped into cars this summer and did a sweep of the state, dropping in on some 330 drug stores in dozens of cities and towns to see how pharmacists and other retailers were displaying and selling the product. The results were disturbing.

"There's a wide variety of compliance rates, no uniformity," says Cara Smith, Attorney General Madigan's policy chief, who was along for nearly every visit. "The counties that have been the hardest hit had the highest compliance rates. Peoria, Tazewell — very high. Whether we were in a Walgreens or a convenience store attached to a gas station, the clerks knew the law and were conversant in it. But as we got to Chicago and other places not as hard hit, we found retailers weren't aware of what the law was. There were violations in the display provisions, violations in the quantity being sold."

In Herrin, where 10 sites were checked, the compliance rate was 100 percent. Not a single store violated the display or sales limits in the law. And in Effingham, the compliance rate was 90 percent, but as they made their way around the state, the numbers started to slip, to 71 percent in Whiteside and Lee counties, 53 percent in Rockford, 50 percent in Champaign, 35 percent in Bloomington and just 23 percent in parts of Chicago. Statewide, the compliance rate was 65 percent.

The spotty results have officials doubly worried: Not only is the state likely to get an influx of meth makers and users hopping the border from Iowa and Missouri, but there may be a rush from county to county, town to town, within the state as meth makers and dealers seek out the easiest place to do business.

"We're finding that, within our borders, we have the same issues we have outside our borders," Smith says. "If one county isn't as compliant as the next, that will encourage this same sort of forum shopping."

The larger issue now is how best to equip the officers on the front lines of the battle against meth — mostly deputies and narcotics officers in rural areas, but increasingly, tactical officers in big cities — with the toughest laws and best tools to thwart the trade. And because the Iowa and Missouri laws were inked just this year — Missouri's took effect in July — it may be too soon to judge the effect they will have in Illinois. 

But, already, there are discouraging signs. "We're seeing a lot more people coming over from Iowa to shop for pills," says Jeff Boyd, deputy director of the multi-agency Quad Cities Metropolitan Enforcement Group, whose coverage area straddles the Iowa-Illinois border.

The unit, which posts billboards throughout the area warning, "If you cook it, we will come," has seen a drop in the number of meth labs, but an increase in the number of arrests for illegal possession of the ingredients for making meth. In one case this summer, the unit tracked a man from near Cedar Rapids to 15 stores where he bought pills. When they arrested him, the officers learned that he had not only been previously convicted on meth-related charges but was currently on pretrial release in a federal meth case from Iowa.

Roughly 98 percent of the unit's meth cases are related to the illegal purchase of meth precursors, Boyd says, noting that officers have worked out agreements with security officials at drug stores to tip them whenever someone is trying to purchase a suspicious quantity of medicines.

The statistics don't surprise Van Haaften. "We've taken down labs in Mount Pleasant here in Iowa, where the supply came from Illinois. And in Washington, Iowa, all the pseudoephedrine came from Illinois," he says. There also have been busts linked to Illinois in Pleasantville, near Des Moines, where a trip to this state was planned, he says.

In Madison County, near Missouri, there hasn't been a dramatic spike in meth activity since the state enacted its harsher laws, according to Sheriff Hertz. But he suspects the tougher Missouri law is having some effect because the number of lab busts and arrests has remained constant despite stepped-up efforts to blunt the trade.

"Maybe because of what we're doing here, and what they're doing there, our numbers are evening out," he says. "We're holding our own. I don't think law enforcement is fighting this with one arm tied behind our back, but maybe making stores move all of this stuff behind the counter would have an impact and, when the dust clears, maybe in two years or so, perhaps we'll see the numbers come down, hopefully."

Regardless, state officials say some uniformity is needed to stop border hopping. "States can't be in this stampede or dash to the toughest law," says Smith, of the attorney general's office. "It doesn't make any sense. The federal government needs to step in."

In fact, work is under way on a proposal pushed by U.S. Sens. Jim Talent, a  Missouri Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to put some uniformity in place. 

But the power of the pharmaceutical and retail lobbies is huge, and officials here and in other states with toughened laws worry any federal legislation would be watered down and block future attempts by states to draft even stricter guidelines. This is particularly worrisome now that it has been shown how easily meth can be made from liquid forms of nonprescription medicine, which, so far, only Iowa locks up or keeps behind the counter.

In the meantime, Illinois officials are looking to toughen this state's law. "Though Indiana has a law that's weaker than some out there, Wisconsin is going to put into effect a [tougher] law similar to Oklahoma's and the end result is we'll be surrounded by tougher states," says Mange of the attorney general's office. "That's the bottom line right now." 

Eric Ferkenhoff, former police beat reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is an Oak Park-based writer who contributes to such publications as the Boston GlobeTime and U.S. News & World Report.

Illinois Issues, September 2005

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