The Epidemic on Aisle 6
Busting a record number of methamphetamine labs hasn't rid the Midwest of its latest drug scourge. Now cops want to make it harder to buy cold pills that contain a key meth ingredient. Will the drug lobby let them?
AT 1:30 P.M. ON A TUESDAY IN JULY, it was 96 degrees in the shade and there was no shade in a parking lot an hour south of St. Louis. A half-dozen SUVs and pickup trucks formed a semicircle on the asphalt. The air conditioners were on full blast, but the pairs of burly, goateed men inside each vehicle had the windows down and the doors open.
When a white van with two more whiskered men pulled up to the huddle, Sergeant Tommy Wright stepped out of his gold Ford Explorer. He took 1,200 cold pills from a lockbox, laid them on the tailgate of one of the pickups, and counted them. Then he handed the pills to the men in the white van, former drug offenders turned confidential informants. In the biggest, blackest truck, Corporal Eric Burgard shoved Metallica into his CD player. To the crunching chords of "Enter Sandman," the members of the Jefferson County Drug Task Force put on their Kevlar vests and got ready to roll.
White van in the lead, the vehicles rumbled out of the lot and turned onto Missouri State Highway 21. The day's first stop was a small, shabby white home on Castle Ranch Road, a country lane that starts winding through the limestone and sycamore foothills of the Ozarks a mile south of the tiny town of Hillsboro. The task force had been up Castle Ranch many times, and they'd been to this address three months before. In April they busted 43-year-old Jeff Collins for cooking methamphetamine. They confiscated glassware and pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy pills, the over-the-counter medicine from which meth is made. But getting busted hadn't fazed Collins. Out on bond awaiting trial, he'd agreed to take delivery of 1,200 more pills from the informants in return for cash and finished product.
The informants were supposed to meet Collins around 2 p.m. The posse of unmarked vehicles hid up and down Castle Ranch to block the suspect's escape. But after an hour of waiting for Collins to show, it was clear that he was on what Wright has dubbed "tweaker time," and the posse headed back to the parking lot.
The task force killed another hour by searching a suspected meth lab five miles to the north. The vehicles blocked the gravel drive of another tired wooden house. The inhabitants spilled out, rail thin, bug-eyed, and dressed in as little as possible. A frightened girl in a swimsuit hugged the legs of a middle-aged woman, also in a swimsuit, while a shirtless male answered Wright's questions. As they all stood and sweated in the driveway, a cop handed the woman a printed consent form for a search. She signed.
Then Wright took a cellphone call. It was one of the informants. Collins was home. The pack raced back to Castle Ranch and got there just as the informants, having made their trade, were driving away. "Two guys in a white van!" barked Wright. "Get a car to stop them!" While some of Wright's men launched an imaginary pursuit of the supposed runaways, one officer held Collins down in the dirt and cuffed him.
At 5'6" and 110 pounds, Collins had graying hair that was stiff and unwashed. He had no teeth and a dirty white bandage covered half his right hand. Dust fell from his chest and into his beltless jeans as he was yanked to his feet and began protesting his innocence. "I just got home 20 minutes ago!" he insisted. "I'm just out here working on my van!" Wright smiled. "The first part of that is true," he said. Collins kept denying the existence of the pills and pleading his car repair excuse to one of Wright's deputies as the cop insisted otherwise. After Collins had sputtered on for a few minutes, Wright turned to another of his cops and deadpanned, "Do you want to play the 'Yes, you are!' 'No, I'm not!' game? Go ahead. Say, 'Yes, you are.' It's fun."
The suspect's elderly parents watched from the porch. A black mutt ambled over, and a teenager with a hearing aid yanked it back toward the house. Two members of Wright's task force started pulling pieces of a meth lab from a derelict vehicle in the driveway—punctured cans of starter fluid, crusty plastic funnels. "You're looking at 17 years," Wright told Collins. "You need to help yourself." Wright wanted Collins to agree to become an informant. "I know," Collins said. "I'm thinking."
IN THE MID-1990S, METHAMPHETAMINE MORPHED from the pastime of biker gangs into a major West Coast industry. Mexican rings took over the trade, building so-called superlabs in California. Using tubs of ephedrine smuggled north from Mexico, and vats of legal chemicals like red phosphorus, these factories could churn out 10 pounds of methamphetamine—also known as meth, crank, crystal, or speed—every two days. In 1999, 2,100 labs were busted in California, a third of the national total for busts.
But by then, much of the cooking had already moved east. Methamphetamine brought to the Midwest by drug mules had created a new market for the drug, and a different style of production. In Missouri especially, local users began cooking their own. Instead of a handful of factory labs, authorities suddenly had to track down thousands of tiny Mom-and-Pop operations, supplied by chemicals available in strip malls and convenience stores. As of 2002, Missouri and the eight states that touch its borders accounted for more than half the lab busts in the nation. In 2003, accounting for 15 percent of the nation's total, Missouri alone had 2,860 labs—compared to fewer than half that number in California. The state had become the front line in the newest theater of the drug war. The problem was at its worst in Jefferson and Franklin counties, two rural jurisdictions on the edge of St. Louis.
The first reaction to any criminal epidemic is a crackdown. Politicians stiffen penalties, and the police increase man-hours and arrests. Missouri followed the pattern. It was among the first Midwestern states to tackle meth with a raft of new laws and longer sentences. Its 1998 law making distribution of meth a Class A felony, with penalties ranging from 10 to 30 years, was the toughest in the nation. Tommy Wright's Jefferson County is a case study in aggressive, efficient enforcement. Lab busts have soared since last fall when Wright, a former narc, took over the county's 13-man drug task force. The young and gung-ho unit has increased undercover buys and deliveries like the one that stung Jeff Collins. Jefferson is on pace for more than 300 busts this year, double its total from last year, when it had already surged to first in the state which is first in busts in the nation.
But as Missouri's prisons have filled and as the state budget has begun to bleed red like many others across the country its strict new meth laws have become empty threats. The state doesn't have the beds or the money to lock up cooks for long, no matter what the statutes say. As a result, many convicted meth cooks get probation, not 10 years. As a result, Wright and other law enforcers have looked for help from the federal government. The police sergeant's power to threaten Jeff Collins with 17 years in prison came from the tough federal sentencing guidelines. Still, while cops like Wright are thankful for federal drug laws because they put meth cooks away, and for federal drug policy because of the funding it rains down, so far there hasn't been a decline in the supply or the demand for meth in Missouri.
The head of the drug task force in next-door Franklin County, Detective Corporal Jason Grellner, also believes in arresting bad guys, and like Wright he's happy to have the feds help him do it. In July, for example, he and a loaner team of young DEA agents burst in on a biker-cook in mid-manufacture. When the ammonia fog cleared, they found meth, guns, stolen property, and a huge cache of pseudoephedrine pills.
But most days, necessity forces Grellner to concentrate on stopping meth crimes before they happen. There are fewer cops, less money, and many more square miles to cover in Franklin, so Grellner has had to approach meth from a different angle. In the long run his way may be cheaper, and more effective than taking down labs. Grellner wants to stop the local cooks before they get to the kitchen. His dream is to shut off the supply of pseudoephedrine on which they rely—if only the drug industry, one of the most powerful in America, would let him.
FRANKLIN AND JEFFERSON COUNTIES TRACE THEIR METH PROBLEMS to white refugees from Southern California, truckers as well as bikers, who moved to Eastern Missouri in the mid-'90s and brought their taste for speed with them. In his office in Union, Mo., an hour west of downtown St. Louis, Grellner, whom everyone calls Jake, pinpointed when and how the problem became local. "We know who our patient zero is," he said. In 1997, a California cook named John Bushdiecker set up a local shop. Before he was sent to state prison, he shared his recipe with friends in both Jefferson and Franklin counties. Said Grellner, "We estimate that every cook teaches seven other people how to cook."
At first, the Missouri meth trade operated in a style that would be familiar to veterans of the crack wars on the coasts in the '80s and early '90s. Crack was a highly profitable business. In Franklin, a man named Larry Lashley sat atop a pyramid, controlling the manufacture of meth and the cash from it. Twenty-three people worked for him. "With crack," said Grellner, "somebody's making money. That was true at first here too."
Within two years, however, the pyramid crumbled and became what Grellner calls an "amoeba." The cops rarely found more than two ounces of finished product at any one lab. So many locals had learned to make meth, and so many had become addicts, that the area was suddenly awash in small-time cooks. They still sold dope, but their first priority was feeding their own habits with their homemade, pseudoephedrine-based dope—purer than the Mexican brand and soon more reliably available.
The outbreak of Beavis and Butt-Head labs, as they're often called, has proved a disaster for Missouri's rural counties. To the costs of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, authorities must add the costs of treatment, foster care, and environmental protection. Whether they snort, smoke, or inject their drugs, meth addicts degenerate into jittery miniatures of themselves—skinny, toothless, paranoid, and extremely resistant to rehab. They can burn out up to half of the dopamine-producing cells in their brains, making it hard for them to feel pleasure without getting high. Those who cook often do so in the presence of children, and cooking produces toxins that burn the skin, scar the lungs, and even kill. In the name of public safety, the county has to take the kids and then mop up the mess. The cleaning bill for a single penny-ante lab starts at $3,500.
As late as 1997, Franklin and Jefferson counties together notched fewer than a dozen lab busts. When Roy (not his real name), a user from the San Fernando Valley, first arrived in Franklin County in the mid-'90s he had to import his meth from back home. When the connection dried up, he started cooking himself, and the risk of getting caught was minimal. "People weren't aware of it," he said. Law enforcement then, he sighed nostalgically, "wasn't nothing like it is now." In July, while on parole, Roy was arrested for his third meth-related offense, possession of 700 pills and the equipment to cook them.
Beyond scalps, Wright believes notching a lab a day brings tangible results. He has taken down some players he considers major, and other repeat offenders have relocated. Wright encourages cooks to flee. After he busts them, he gets county agencies to cite them for code violations—sanitation, housing, anything. "We call anybody we can to make their lives miserable," he said. "Either they'll comply with the laws or they'll have to move."
Wright's blitzkrieg might only move meth across a line on a map, but from the perspective of local law enforcement, that's still a victory. Wright's sworn duty isn't to solve the nation's drug problem. It's to clean up a clearly defined piece of real estate, using the tools at hand. Still, in an era when state coffers across the country are tapped out, cracking down is simply too expensive. Money woes have sapped the strength of Missouri's strict new meth laws. "I call it feel-good legislation," said Bob Parks, the prosecuting attorney for Franklin County. "It's almost done with a wink."
Because of prison overcrowding, Missouri built five new prisons in the late '90s—and then neglected to fund their operation. By the time the prisons were fully staffed in 2004, the system was already at capacity. Missouri was forced to adopt a "one-in/one-out" prison policy. For every felon who goes in another must come out, and nonviolent offenders, including meth cooks, come out first. In another effort to free up bunks, the state legislature also began rolling back the stiff penalties that it had mandated in the late '90s. Over the objections of the state's attorney general, last year the legislature lessened penalties for nonviolent felonies, including meth possession. Judges were given leeway to offer probation even to repeat drug offenders.
The upshot is that it's increasingly difficult for cops and prosecutors to send convicted meth cooks to prison. "I can take [a cook] before a judge for the third time and the law says 15 years, and they're out on probation," Parks said. Cooks are especially unlikely to do time if they come from the rural corners where meth is most prevalent. In counties like Franklin, where drug cases are now 60 percent of the docket, double the pre-meth, mid-'90s share, cooks are sentenced at the low end of the spectrum because each county has a population-based quota of state prison beds. No agency in Missouri keeps statewide statistics on meth offenders. Stats for all drug offenders, however, show that they're three times more likely to be on probation or parole than behind bars.
Throughout the heartland, the strain on budgets has forced states to adopt a version of Tommy Wright's strategy—trying to make meth somebody else's problem by pushing it out of their counties, and by shifting the burden of paying for their battle to the rest of the country's taxpayers. In Missouri and the rest of the Midwestern meth belt, the drug warriors are on the federal dole. Next door to Missouri, a Kansas auditor estimated that 40 percent of his state's anti-meth efforts were funded by the federal government. No one has done the math in Missouri, but officials say that the fed's share may be even higher. "I know we couldn't run our programs without it," confirmed Captain Ron Replogle of the State Highway Patrol, who administers some of the federal money. Jake Grellner is less diplomatic. "Without the feds," he said, "we'd be hosed."
In Missouri, $100 million in federal funds pays for everything from enforcement to prosecution. If you scratch a state program, you'll probably find federal money underneath. An EPA grant helps defray the expense of lab cleanup. Federal cash pays for $51 million in substance abuse treatment. It underwrites an anti-meth police training program in the state capital. It pays the salaries of two extra chemists in the state crime lab, and of special county prosecutors who do nothing but meth cases. In Jefferson County, Wright pays for two taskforce cops and a meth prosecutor with federal dollars. At its July meeting, his task force was trying to figure out how to spend $169,000 from a special one-time federal grant. (The county's most pressing need, the group decided, was a safe building in which to store the mountain of poisonous, flammable evidence seized in daily lab busts.)
The federal government's biggest gift to Missouri is its prisons. A meth cook who becomes a federal defendant and then a federal prisoner does not clog the county docket or drain local coffers. In federal court, Congress's sentencing guidelines kick in, and they redefine tough. "They will actually do the time," said Bob Parks of Franklin County. "I have a hard time explaining that to them. They say, 'You mean I'm not going to be home next week?'"
Cops in both Jefferson and Franklin counties are now steering as many as 40 percent of their meth cases to the U.S. District Court in St. Louis. According to Wright and Grellner, both counties now funnel suspects to a federal prosecutor, one of 16 special assistant U.S. attorneys in six Midwestern meth-belt states funded by the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The federalization of drug crime is not news. In the past two decades, the federal prison population has doubled, mostly due to drug offenders. By 1994, inmates sentenced for meth crimes were still only 6 percent of the annual federal drug tally, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. But as of 2002, the last year for which figures are available, the representation of meth convicts among federal drug inmates had climbed to more than 15 percent. Their actual number increased fourfold, from 1,000 to 3,969, far outpacing both the growth in the number of prisoners in the federal system as a whole and the federal drug inmate population. Among federal drug inmates from Missouri, the figure jumped to more than 32 percent.
Critics charge that fighting the federal drug war is like smashing ants with a sledgehammer. Prosecutors "devote most of their time to low-level, easily captured drug offenders," said Eric Sterling, who, as counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, helped write the mandatory-minimum sentences of the '80s—and now lobbies against them as president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. In Missouri, half of the meth defendants prosecuted in federal court are Mexican couriers caught with two- and five-pound packages of meth. The rest of the defendants are white guys who cook with cold pills. The biker that Jake Grellner busted with DEA help will be doing 25 years for getting caught with more than 10,000 cold pills and a lab that held three ounces of meth, enough to keep only a half dozen tweakers high for a week. Yet Grellner said the biker is among his top five all-time busts.
Overall, drug prosecutions have darkened the population of federal prisons. At least in this respect, methamphetamine is different. In 1994, nearly 73 percent of the year's 1,000 new federal meth inmates were white. When the Mexicans took over the meth business, the white percentage dropped to about 60 percent. Then it stabilized, reflecting the trade's swing to the Midwest. As the total number of meth inmates rises, the whites among them have actually halted the shrinking representation of white convicts in the federal prison population, which bottomed out at about 30 percent in 2000. The odds that a white federal inmate is behind bars for meth were 1 in 15 in 1994; they're now 1 in 8.
Perhaps it's a crude form of racial justice that a new drug epidemic has begun to restore the prisons' demographic balance. And a bill introduced last May by Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, would accelerate this trend. At present meth cooks do more time than heroin, powder cocaine, and pot dealers, but they still don't do as much time as crack dealers. Schumer wants federal penalties for meth to be the same as those for crack. His proposal would increase the average meth sentence by 30 percent, from 88.5 months to 115. That would further whiten the federal inmate population.
The nation is on the verge of creating another class of drug offenders who measure their sentences in decades. But do we want to foot the bill, at more than $20,000 per inmate per year, for Beavis and Butt-Head meth cooks?
With buckets of federal money, smart cops like Grellner and Wright have been able to arrest more people. The problem is that those arrests haven't reduced America's abuse of meth. In 2003, treatment centers in Missouri reported a rise in the number of patients seeking detox for meth for the 13th straight year. And the street price of meth is stable, meaning that despite soaring lab busts, there's a steady supply of product. The crackdown isn't working, and it may be time to try something else. "If you want to stop throwing money at the problem," said Jake Grellner, "get rid of the pseudoephedrine."
THE ADRENALINE RUSH AND CAMARADERIE OF A DRUG COP'S JOB promote a sort of frat-boy machismo, and narcs sometimes walk, talk, and dress a little like the coke dealers and bikers they chase. Jake Grellner is a different kind of narc. He has no goatee, no tattoos, and more sarcasm than bluster. He was a full-scholarship chemical engineering student at the University of Missouri before he felt the pull of law enforcement. He can draw a meth molecule on a chalkboard, he can describe its effect on the brain, and in crime-fighting he prefers to think long-term.
Grellner has become Missouri's leading proponent of taking away access to the drug's raw ingredients—especially the one that's common to all the popular Missouri recipes, pseudoephedrine. A cheap and effective decongestant, pseudoephedrine is also a close cousin of speed, easily converted to meth with the help of a few household chemicals. In 2002, Grellner launched a program called Operation Chem. He teaches retailers what tweakers are likely to buy or steal, from cold pills to iodine, and asks them to call in the license plate number of any suspicious shopper. Once the manager and the clerks have been trained, he puts a poster in the store window that reads "Operation Chem" as a warning to cooks.
Grellner is still aggressive about finding and busting labs. But he's proud of the fact that Franklin's annual lab bust total actually dropped by a third between 2002 and last year, a sign that educating the retailers has nudged some of the cooks out of the county. Another statistic seems to support this conclusion: Grellner is now finding fewer "dump labs," or abandoned piles of refuse from old cooking sites.
To date, 15 other counties have signed on to Operation Chem. (In Jefferson County, Wright also pushes retailer education, but on an ad hoc basis.) With a $300,000 grant from the federal government, Grellner is about to take the project to the rest of the state by taping a training video that he'll distribute to stores. Thanks also in large part to his activism, Missouri has restricted purchases of pseudoephedrine-based products to two boxes per customer. (Nine other Midwestern states have enacted similar laws.) Box limits have made cooking harder, adding many hours and highway miles to tweakers' shopping trips.
But what Grellner would really like to do is reclassify pseudoephedrine as a narcotic. Designating the drug as "schedule five," a term used by both the federal government and most state drug control boards, would mean that only licensed pharmacists could sell it. Customers wouldn't need a prescription, but they would have to show photo identification and sign a register. A few Missouri retailers already do something similar on their own. Shelly, a Dollar General store manager in Franklin who did not give her last name, asks for ID and a signature whenever she feels suspicious, figuring that a legitimate shopper won't mind. "Some of them cuss at me," she said of the not-so-legitimate ones. "But they don't come around here anymore."
In theory, reclassifying pseudoephedrine as a schedule five drug would lift the plague of Beavis and Butt-Head. The labs would shut down. The shoulder of I-44, the interstate that runs from St. Louis to Oklahoma, wouldn't be littered with empty Sudafed blister packs. The woods of Franklin and Jefferson counties wouldn't be filled with toxic trash. The foster care system could catch its breath. The drain on money and manpower would end.
Sherry Green, executive director of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, recently interviewed cops and prosecutors in the Midwest for a survey about state meth laws, and she didn't interview "one person who deals with this problem on a daily basis," not one cop or prosecutor who doesn't want to try reclassifying pseudoephedrine. Law enforcers want schedule five badly even though they know it won't shut down the other source of meth, the West Coast superlabs. "Let the Mexicans have the meth trade," snapped Sam Bertolet, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Missouri. "We'll have done a great thing if we take pseudoephedrine out of the game."
So far, Oklahoma is the only state that has passed a bill requiring pharmacy shoppers to show photo ID and sign a registry when they buy cold pills. The law went into effect in stages starting last April. By mid-July, with the law fully in effect for one month, the state was already claiming a 25-percent decrease in lab busts for the year to date, and a 70-percent drop since the new law's enactment.
Oklahoma's Bill 2176 passed because of the death of a state trooper. The morning after Christmas 2003, a meth cook who was out on bond allegedly shot and killed trooper Nikky J. Green. The murder was caught on video. Green was the third Oklahoma cop killed in a meth-related incident in the previous few years. His widow endorsed the schedule five law and attended legislative hearings to show her support for it. Before then, retailers and drug makers had mounted a full-court press against the bill. Pfizer, the world's largest drug company and the maker of Sudafed, has 27 "governmental relations managers" in state capitals and more than 80 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. The leader of the attack on Bill 2176, however, was Nancy Bukar, director of government relations at the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a lobbying group for companies that make over-the-counter drugs. She started working the Oklahoma Legislature as soon as Governor Brad Henry endorsed the bill.
Green's death forced Bukar and the other lobbyists to change tactics. "They didn't stop. They just weren't as public after it," said Mark Woodward, legislative liaison for the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. Green had put a name on the problem. Bill 2176 passed both houses of the Legislature with one dissenting vote.
JAKE GRELLNER HAS FACED OFF AGAINST BUKAR AND HER ALLIES in Missouri each year since 2001, and each time has come away with nothing but box limits. He understands the drug companies' opposition as a matter of self-interested economics. "It has to be greed," he said. He based his argument on DEA statistics that show consumption of raw pseudoephedrine by U.S. drug firms climbing 178 percent between 1990 and 2003. The amount sold rose from 9 to 14 tons between 1998 and 1999 alone. Grellner assumes the retail sales of cold pills made with pseudoephedrine have shown similar growth. "Do you remember the great cold outbreak of 1999?" he asked sarcastically. "Neither do I. But we do remember the great meth lab outbreak."
Nancy Bukar disputes Grellner's numbers. She insists there has not been any spike in consumption of over-the-counter cold medicine. "Sales are flat," she claims, and there's no way to challenge her. Though anecdotal evidence suggests, for example, that sales of cold pills have exploded at convenience stores, all the hard data is collected by the drug companies and, as Bukar says, it shows retail sales to be flat or declining.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association has proved a tenacious force against restricting pseudoephedrine sales, including box limits, throughout the Midwest. State Senator Julie Rosen of Minnesota, sponsor of a bill similar to Oklahoma's, exhaled at the mention of Bukar's name. "She was here at least three times," Rosen said. Before her bill died in committee earlier this year, pressure from CHPA had forced her to strip a schedule five provision from the legislation.
CHPA is fighting a schedule five designation for pseudoephedrine, Bukar said, for the convenience of cold remedy customers. "What we don't want to do is criminalize legitimate behavior," she argued. Instead, CHPA prefers retailer education and sponsors a program not unlike Operation Chem, called Meth Watch. She points out that in many rural counties, where pharmacies are scarce, residents buy their cold remedies at convenience stores, which aren't allowed to sell pseudoephedrine under Oklahoma's law. "Let's say someone has a cold and drives all the way to a drugstore and then realizes she's forgotten her ID," Bukar said. "Should she have to drive home and get it?"
But in Iowa, state drug czar Marvin Van Haaften commissioned a poll that showed 94 percent of Iowans supported reclassifying pseudoephedrine. They would not feel inconvenienced by showing ID, they said. As a former sheriff, Van Haaften supported a schedule five bill because of his memory of an early 1970s cough syrup epidemic in which codeine addicts shoplifted syrup, leaving empty boxes in store bathrooms and parking lots. "I remember very, very well that when they made codeine schedule five, the problem ended instantly," Van Haaften said. "In my last 15 years as sheriff, I don't think I arrested one person addicted to cough syrup."
Van Haaften convinced Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to back his effort. But by the time a bill was proposed last winter there was nothing about reclassifying pseudoephedrine in it. CHPA-sponsored ads on local talk radio touted the benefits of pseudoephedrine for colds and allergies, without mentioning any brand names. The version of the bill that passed in July was so watered down that its only sales restriction was a box limit on a small class of products in which pseudoephedrine was the only active ingredient—in other words, 2 percent of all 800 or so pseudoephedrine-based brands. Tweakers could buy only three boxes of Sudafed, but they could still buy Actifed in bulk because Actifed has multiple ingredients.
Still, Van Haaften and Grellner continue to crusade, and Oklahoma's big drop in meth busts is giving them renewed hope. Mark Woodward of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics said he's been fielding phone calls from lawmakers throughout the Midwest, asking for stats on lab busts. The legislators have told him they're interested in reclassifying pseudoephedrine, and they need proof of the new law's success to fend off the lobbyists.
Until other states follow suit, however, Oklahoma's innovation is just another way to make homegrown meth labs somebody else's problem. Woodward said that while lab totals are down statewide, they're up slightly in those counties that border other states. "They're driving into Fort Smith, Arkansas, to do their shopping" (15 minutes from the Oklahoma state line), and then coming home to cook, he said. Iowa's Van Haaften said that Arkansas officials have told him that pseudoephedrine sales in the state's western counties have "skyrocketed" since Oklahoma changed its laws. "It's really important that all the states be on the same page," said Julie Rosen, the Minnesota legislator.
The shortcut to making the law uniform is to go to Washington, D.C. But a federal bill proposed by Representative Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat who is a pharmacist, died in committee in 2002. This year, in the wake of his state's success, Oklahoma congressman Brad Carson, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate this fall, introduced a new version. He thinks CHPA and Pfizer will have to endorse such a measure eventually for the sake of their image. "It's a public relations disaster for them if they don't," he said. "When the heat is on, I'm confident they will be constructively engaged."
It's possible that he'll be proven right. Until recently, the Bush Administration's position on schedule five was equivocal. Drug czar John Walters said that pseudoephedrine offered "an enormous, legitimate benefit" and made it clear that the White House had no plans to push for federal reclassification of the drug. Then in August, Walters's deputy, Scott Burns, announced a change in policy, without calling it that, at an appearance in Oklahoma. "President Bush sent me here . . . to find out what they are doing in Oklahoma that has made such a dramatic difference," Burns said, and he went on to express the White House's newfound interest in a federal schedule five. (John Kerry has taken no position on the issue.) Burns spent the next week taking commercial flights around the Midwest to give the same speech. In Iowa, he pledged to help Marvin Van Haaften pass his statewide measure.
Grellner and his fellow cops aren't home free yet, however. Burns also told Van Haaften that during his junket, he'd noticed a woman who rode with him on every plane. When he introduced himself, she said that she worked for Pfizer and was following him, and then pointed out other drug company reps in other seats who were doing the same....