COLUMBIANA, Alabama — For anyone who thinks Shelby County doesn’t have a methamphetamine problem, Sheriff Chris Curry pointed to a clandestine lab bust by Pelham police officers at a motel that happened less than a month ago.
“Three officers just doing a routine response to a call ended up having to have medical treatment” for exposure to a lab, Curry said about the Sept. 9 discovery in a motel room at the Oak Mountain Lodge.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg as we see meth cooks in homes and apartments where there are children and we see the damage to the lifestyle and the families,” Curry said. “We should all know that we have a real problem with meth. Alabama has that problem and Shelby County has that problem.”
At a press conference this morning at Davis Drug in Columbiana, Curry along with Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens, state Sen. Slade Blackwell of Mountain Brook and pharmacy owner Jim Davis Jr. spoke about changes to state law that help limit access to ingredients used to make methamphetamine.
“Alabama is actually leading the nation in our campaign against meth and smurfing,” Blackwell said, referring to the term used to describe the purchase of the common over-the-counter allergy medicine pseudoephedrine for use in making meth.
On Oct. 1, 2012, the state became the first to launch an anti-smurfing campaign to raise awareness of the illicit practice, Blackwell said. Smurfing happens when “people come into drug stores like here and they buy pseudoephedrine, and they take that and turn that into meth, which is very addictive and hurting our society,” he said.
Speakers at a press conference on Shelby County’s methamphetamine problem on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at Davis Drug in Columbiana include state Sen. Slade Blackwell of Mountain Brook, Sheriff Chris Curry, pharmacy owner Jim Davis Jr. and District Attorney Robby Owens
Although the act of buying pseudoephedrine for use in making methamphetamine is a felony, pharmacies throughout Alabama utilize a tool that helps the businesses, as well as law enforcement and prosecutors, curb illegal purchases of the allergy medicine.
The statewide database, known as NPLEx, or the National Precursor Log Exchange, tracks pseudoephedrine purchases made by customers, who are limited to 7.5 grams per month.
“You have to present an ID, a driver’s license or properly accepted ID, and they enter the information in the database for other pharmacists to see it,” Owens said about how the system works. As a result, pharmacists like Davis are “able to go into that database and be sure the person is not buying more” than allowed under law.
Davis said the system helps him determine whether sales of the medicine are legal to customers. “As a pharmacist, my main job is to perform a service in the community,” he said. “It’s comforting to know we have friends in law enforcement we can turn to when questions arise of illegal activity.”
The database is “simple to use and offers immediate confirmation whether or not to sell,” Davis said.
Curry said the database helps with law enforcement investigations as methamphetamine continues to change in how it’s made.
“It’s undergone a lot of changes. The actual meth and producing the meth has changed, becoming much simpler, much more mobile,” Curry said, noting that manufacturing can happen in a cooler in the back of a car.
“What’s driving this is the availability of meth is easier to make so our choice is to make it harder to get. If we can limit access to necessary ingredients,” that can help curb use and production, he said.
According to a subcommittee report of the Alabama Drug Abuse Task Force, Shelby County remains one of the top 10 in the state for selling pseudoephedrine.
From January through March this year, Shelby County was fourth highest with roughly 46,282 grams of the medicine sold. At the same time, there were almost 2,265 grams blocked for purchase, according to the database figures and the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Commission.
By comparison, Jefferson County had almost 102,313 grams sold and 7,184 grams blocked for purchase, while Mobile County had 95,013 grams sold and 8,937 grams blocked, according to the report.
“Yes, there’s meth all over Shelby County,” Curry said. “Does the usual citizen, the normal citizen … see meth? No, they don’t, but it’s there and it’s affecting the health of our community and it’s affecting the economy of our community.”