Southern Alabama authorities see meth lab resurgence

Published 5:22 pm Sunday, July 13, 2008

MOBILE – Methamphetamine production in Mobile and Baldwin counties is on the rise again after tighter restrictions on the sale of some cold medicines caused a sharp drop in recent years, officials said.

Those restrictions, which took effect in October 2005, limit the purchase of medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are needed to make meth. Authorities said meth makers had trouble getting the ingredients for the drug without those over-the-counter pills.

The law requires stores to record the names of people who buy ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. But there is no central database, so meth cooks realized they could avoid detection by buying small amounts at several stores, said Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran.

He said it appears hundreds of people in Mobile County have bought far more of the two drugs than is legally allowed.

“The meth heads and meth cooks have organized themselves pretty good in doing pill shopping,” Cochran told the Press-Register newspaper.

Meth lab seizures in Mobile County, which dropped from 48 in 2005 to 17 in 2006, rose to 33 last year. The sheriff’s office is running slightly ahead of last year’s numbers with 17 busts through the first half of 2008. That trend is consistent statewide, the paper reported.

Under Alabama’s law, people can’t buy more than two packages of drugs containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine at a time and can buy no more than 6 grams in a 30-day period.

The law also states that retailers must keep the products behind the counter or in a locked display case and record all sales. Customers also must show photo identification and sign a form that includes their printed name and address.

Cochran said Mobile County got a two-year, $450,000 federal grant and hired a retired federal Immigration Customs Enforcement agent to start an inspection program. Joe Bettner has been training 30 deputies to examine the logs of businesses and pharmacies.

Bettner said some stores didn’t correctly log purchases — if they logged them at all. Even when stores did log them correctly, there was no way to compile the information in a central database.

Bettner said he has been building a database from sales logs and has found some 200 names that have appeared on the lists of multiple sellers. Some of the people have bought more than 200 grams in the past six months, about six times the legal limit.

Bettner said compliance among retailers has improved dramatically since the beginning of the year. Because of the inspections, he said, many non-pharmacy retailers have stopped selling the products.

The licenses are granted by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, so violators risk losing their right to sell alcohol and tobacco, as well as cold medicine.