Supervisor Cracks Down On Meth's Main Ingredient: Cold Medicine

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A child's story prompted Gila County District 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin to create a plan to deal with the methamphetamine problem in northern Gila County.

"I was at adult drug court where a mother and her 7-year-old were talking to the judge," she said. "The judge asked the little boy if there was ever a time he did not love his mother during her addiction and recovery. The little boy said he had not ever stopped loving his mother, then he said, ‘But there were times I sure didn't like her very much.' It brought tears to my eyes."

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Payson Walgreens store manager Cliff Wilembrecht places product cards on the shelves where some cold and allergy medications used to be stocked. Gila County Dist. 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin wants to make the behind-the-counter practice mandatory at all stores.

Gila County Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill said the judicial system has seen a dramatic increase in child welfare cases where methamphetamine is involved.

"We also see it in domestic relation cases, where custody agreements need to be modified because of meth use," he said, adding that the meth problem is leading to more financial crimes, such as identity theft, forgery and check fraud.

Martin based her plan on a private-government partnership. She presented it at a press conference Aug. 31.

She said Gila County's drug court -- for both juveniles and adults -- does an excellent job.

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"Once caught up in the criminal justice system, drug court may be an addict's only real chance of getting clean and staying clean through its disciplined use of both positive and negative consequences," she said. She wants more done though.

"Many common ingredients go into the making of meth ... However, what makes meth ‘meth' is either ephedrine or pseudoephedrine that is found in over-the-counter cold and sinus medicines," she said.

Researching the problem, the supervisor said she has found estimates that indicate 70 percent to 80 percent of the county's burglaries are meth-related, and 60 percent to 70 percent of the violent crimes are rooted some way in the drug's production and use.

Gila County Sheriff John Armer said between 80 percent and 85 percent of all cases his office sees are generated from substance abuse.

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Martin said other states have passed laws to put the ingredients behind pharmacy counters, though Arizona failed to pass such a law in the last legislative session. Some municipalities have taken on the task of enacting their own ordinances requiring similar restrictions.

"I would like to try for another way -- one that does not call for more ordinances, more laws, more bureaucracy, more of the heavy hand of government," Martin said. "What we need for this community problem is community involvement, and a private/government partnership to ensure that the businesses in northern Gila County are responsible to the needs and problems of our community. This will take leadership, not dictates."

Martin proposed:

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  • All businesses in northern Gila County, as responsible business partners, put all products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in any quantity off the shelf and only dispense these items from behind the counter with a 9-gram (three package) sale limit.
  • If northern Gila County residents, when purchasing the products for their intended use, find a business not complying, report that noncompliance.
  • Gila County establish a link on the county website and/or a hot line to allow residents to report noncompliance.
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  • Sheriff's deputies or members of the Gila County Sheriff's Posse follow up on all noncompliance reports, and request that business owners comply with only dispensing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from behind a counter.

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"If there are any pharmacies that refuse to comply with a voluntary withdrawal of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from the store shelves and place them behind a counter, I will ask that our health insurance plan not authorize those pharmacies to participate in filling prescriptions enrolled in our health plan," Martin said. "In that way, Gila County would not support businesses that will not support the needs of our community. I will also seek partnerships with the town of Payson, school districts, the Forest Service, the state, utilities and others to join with us in removing those pharmacies as authorized for their insurance plans."

Martin said she wants the media to publicize those businesses that continue to sell the suspect cold and sinus medications, making note of their noncompliance.

"I will also be contacting our civic organizations and churches concerning those businesses that won't comply," she said. "The residents of northern Gila County will then be in position to decide if they want to continue to support businesses that do not support our community."

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Additionally, Martin would like law enforcement agencies to investigate the sources of material used in the meth labs they bust, so that the public will be aware when a local business is enabling a meth lab to operate.

Martin will submit her plan to the board of supervisors Sept. 13, and ask to take it to the Arizona Local Government Benefit Trust, which is the county health insurance provider.

Insurance representatives Terry Cooper, chairman of the board of directors for AZLGBT, and Erin Collins, of Erin Collins & Associates, the county's health insurance administrator, were at Martin's Aug. 31 press conference to hear the preview of her proposal.

"This is the first time I've seen government take a lead role on an interesting path to control the meth problem," Collins said. "We will work with pharmacies to control the problem."

"We applaud the effort and are glad to see this approach to the wellness of the community," Cooper said.

Walgreens is one of the corporations already making the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine more difficult to obtain, said Matt Cook, regional pharmacy supervisor for Walgreens. The restrictions include keeping the products behind the counter and limiting the number of packages sold to an individual.

Other pharmacies in town were contacted about their practices. The Apothecary Shop, Bashas' and Wal-Mart are already taking the same action. The pharmacy at Safeway is looking into it and expects to institute the restrictions shortly.

Gila County Manager Steven Besich said he believes the combined buying power of the county, other government entities, utility companies and individuals can have a serious impact.

"We have to make the community aware of the problem in their back yard," Martin said. "We are staring at a tiger."

Cliff Wilembrecht, a 30-year veteran with Walgreens, said the company has always been family-oriented.

"Walgreens has always wanted to do what's right for the family and the community," he said. "I think it's a great policy and it's the right thing to do."

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the "Combat Meth Act" July 28, 2005 and the measure is scheduled to be heard by the full senate, though no hearing date has been published.

The act will put products with meth-making ingredients behind the counter and require a pharmacist, pharmacy technician, or approved alternative seller to dispense them.

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