Meth battle requires continued tracking, local leaders say

The legislation that requires buyers of medication with pseudoephedrine to provide identification and be entered into a state database is working to reduce meth making -- and needs to be continued, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

"When meth first hit Illinois it hit us very, very hard and we hit back very, very hard," Madigan said. "We had to. But meth is a unique drug. It's like a virus that mutates, so we must retool our responses to how this drug is made."

The act that restricts consumers from buying more than two packages of pseudoephedrine products at a time, or products with more than 7,500 milligrams of the drug in a 30-day period, went into effect in 2006. The act also requires customers to show photo identification and sign a purchasing log.

In 2010 an act went into effect that allowed pharmacies to track the sale of pseudoephedrine and block the sale of the pills if the sale would exceed the legal purchase amount allowed. The act is set to expire in January and Illinois Sen. Bill Haine and state Rep. Jerry Costello II intend to introduce legislation this fall that will make the act permanent.

"As a former state's attorney, I've witnessed first hand how meth dealers are causing damage to individuals, families and the society as a whole," Haine said. "We need to continue to pass laws that help us crack down on these criminals who are corrupting our communities. Some of these measures are not popular because they can be intrusive and inconvenient but we have to balance the needs of legitimate users with those who abuse it to make meth."

Since the act went into effect in June 2010, pharmacies using the tracking system were able to block the sale of more than 70,000 boxes of pseudophedrine-based medication statewide.

In St. Clair County, pharmacies blocked the sale of 1,361 boxes of the pills. According to data from the Illinois State Police, there were 130 seizures of meth labs in St. Clair and Madison counties between January and August. During the same time frame in 2010, 62 meth labs were seized.

The restrictions cut the number of meth labs in half. In 2006 there were 761 reported meth labs. In 2007 362 were reported.

"But what meth makers have done is they've adapted and we're seeing the number of meth labs on the rise," Madigan said. "What they are doing is making small batches, turning to 'one-pot' or 'shake 'n bake' methods, which can be done with legally purchased amounts of the pills."

Instead of taking the pills back to a lab, meth cooks now simply buy the pills and cook up a batch of meth right in the car or truck, Madigan said.

If the tracking program is not again endorsed by the state legislature, "Illinois will become pill shoppers' paradise and we cannot allow that to happen in our state," Madigan said.

Because cities and counties in Missouri passed laws requiring a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine-based medications, stores and pharmacies on the Illinois side of the river have experienced a significant uptick in sales of those pills. Typically, people buy the pills and sell those pills to the meth makers or exchange the pills for meth, Madigan said.

"Carloads of people from Missouri are coming to Illinois to buy pills," Madigan said. "We know this is happening because we can see it happening through the tracking database. We have to have this database be a permanent database. We get the sense that a lot of people don't realize that when they buy the pills and sell them to meth makers they are committing a crime."

When asked if Illinois would pass a law requiring a prescription for the over-the-counter medication, Madigan replied that the state is responding to the actions taken in Missouri but "at this point we don't think we have to pursue that option. However, if the entire state of Missouri goes to that option, we will have to reconsider our position."

As part of the campaign to educate people about meth, the Illinois Anti-Meth Partnership will put posters up in stores and pharmacies throughout the state in the hopes that people who don't know purchasing pills to sell to meth makers is a crime will realize it is and stop buying the pills.

"It's a matter of life and death for people," said St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. "I know it can be inconvenient for legitimate users of pseudoephedrine, but it is a matter of life and death for those who use it illegally."