A new statewide database has blocked thousands of cold- and allergy-pill purchases as authorities crack down on the growth of meth labs in Florida.
Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, key ingredients in the medicines, also are key ingredients in making methamphetamines.
Extra-strength decongestants with pseudoephedrine — such as 12-hour Sudafed, Claritin-D and Allegra-D — fuel a growing number of meth labs across Florida, authorities said. Meth "cooks" mix ephedrine in cold medicines with household chemicals to make the crystalline drug.
The law allows an individual to buy 9 grams of ephedrine products per month. Since January, when it went live, through late March, the National Precursor Log Exchange database has blocked more than 40,000 illegal ephedrine sales in Florida, according to state data.
Broward and Palm Beach counties each had about 2,000 sales blocked. In Orange County, the database blocked 1,895 sales.
Florida joined 11 states last year in passing legislation that forces pharmacies to track ephedrine products in a database.
"It has been among the most successful laws we've had in reducing meth production," said Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
The system has been compared to the pain-pill monitoring system that's been under fire in Tallahassee, which aims to crack down on pain-pill trafficking across Florida. Both systems track consumer information to show patterns of abuse, and both aim to stop people from doctor shopping or pharmacy hopping.
The ephedrine database is free for states and pharmacies, covered by drug manufacturers with the Consumer Health Products Association. However, the prescription Drug Monitoring Program may require state, federal and private funds.
Concerns over patient privacy sparked fierce opposition to the pill-mill database from the House and Gov. Rick Scott. The pain-pill database appears revived after overcoming opposition by some leaders in the House and gaining reluctant support from Scott.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, a longtime opponent of the database, said through a spokeswoman that he still has concerns about the pain-pill database despite dropping efforts to kill it. He said it's different from the ephedrine database, pointing to a 2005 federal law that already limits ephedrine sales and requires pharmacies to track them in a written logbook.
"[The state law] merely required those pharmacies to maintain that logbook electronically," spokeswoman Katherine Betta said in an email.
Police were unable to enforce the 2005 law because officers don't have time to sift through handwritten logs to find potential meth makers, said Jeff Beasley, special agent supervisor with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
So meth "smurfers" went from pharmacy to pharmacy, each time buying the maximum medicine allowed.
"They were really circumventing the intent of the law," Beasley said.
With the electronic database, unlike with the handwritten logbooks, the system automically blocks an illegal sale.
The new system aimed at meth-lab ingredients requires pharmacists to enter a buyer's driver's license information and blocks the sale if the person already has reached the 9-gram monthly limit. That's roughly a 30-day supply of 24-hour cold and allergy pills.
Police and sheriff's associations pushed for the ephedrine database after reporting an alarming number of meth lab explosions in North Florida in 2009. Several people, including a baby, were severely burned.
The rising popularity of the "shake and bake" meth-making method is largely to blame, authorities said. People have discovered how to make the narcotic in a 2-liter soda bottle, which builds with pressure and often erupts into flames.
Although meth labs are more prevalent in North and Central Florida, a surprising number of blocked ephedrine sales in South Florida indicates that "smurfers" have been driving south to stock up, Beasley said.
FDLE launched the database as a pilot program in 2008 in North Florida. In one year, law enforcement agencies reported that it contributed to 133 arrests. The system flags people who try repeatedly to buy ephedrine over the legal limit, and police use those leads to open drug investigations.
Investigators with the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area use it to help local police find possible "smurfers." They look through the system for suspicious activity and alert respective agencies.
"We give them a heads up when it looks like something more than a long-term cold," said Gary Grimm, intelligence coordinator for the South Florida HIDTA.
As of late March, nearly 550 pharmacies in Broward and Palm Beach counties have started using it. Smaller pharmacy chains have taken longer to get on board, said Beasley, of FDLE. Some stores that sell small amounts of ephedrine may apply for an exemption from using the system.
Pharmacists have shown overwhelming support for both the ephedrine and
pain pill databases, saying they will help separate drug abusers from legitimate users. The pain-pill database would keep track of drugs prescribed to patients, however, doctors and pharmacists would not be required to consult it before selling the pills.
Still, the cold medicine database is only partly effective, since it tracks only one of many drugstore products misused for other purposes, according to Ozzie Delgado, administrative director of clinical operations for Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston.
"The program should be comprehensive," he said.
That means one database to track both prescription and over-the-counter drugs, he said.
Some small pharmacies have decided to stop selling ephedrine and pseudoephedrine medicines altogether. Debbie Glover, a pharmacy technician at Orlando Pharmacy, said the new law was a hassle, and the store has since stopped selling the products.
"We sold such small amounts, so it wasn't worth it," she said.
Bruce Grant, who was Florida's drug czar until Gov. Scott abolished the Office of Drug Control in January, said he finds it ironic that some people support the ephedrine tracking, but not a similar system for prescription drugs.
"The intent is not necessarily to track people, but to prevent those who would purchase excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine … but use it to make meth," he said. "There is some irony here and there's some disconnects."