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Michigan Lawmakers Target Meth Production, 'Smurfing'

By Emma Fidel, Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - Michigan lawmakers are cracking down on smurfs -- not the little blue creatures, but people who buy cold medicine for drug ringleaders to use in methamphetamine production.

Legislation that criminalizes smurfing passed the state House 105-3 on Thursday. It's part of a bipartisan package of seven bills that take aim at meth makers by creating a meth offender database and certain meth-related felony charges.

Lawmakers aim to curb the meth supply by making it harder to buy key ingredients: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are most commonly found in over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.

"You can make meth out of a wide variety of ingredients, but you can't make it without pseudoephedrine," bill sponsor Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, said. "So these are all aimed at keeping pseudoephedrine out of the hands of people who use it for the wrong reasons."

Meth abuse is "a scourge in mainly rural areas" of Michigan, Kivela said.

"We're fearful it's going to start getting to the urban areas," he said. "But it's a big issue, both the addiction to the drug, and the manufacturing. Unlike other drugs, the manufacturing aspect is just as deadly and dangerous."

While it is difficult to track illegal drug use in the state, Department of Community Health spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said the department has focused on heroin and prescription drug abuse in recent years because it sees more treatment cases for those drugs than for meth abuse.

In budget year 2013, publicly-funded treatment programs had 13,376 heroin abuse cases, 8,570 other opiate cases and 22,787 alcohol cases. There were 896 people treated for meth that year, up from 820 in 2012 and 542 in 2011.

Michigan State Police data show there were 641 meth incidents in 2013, up from 553 and 525 in the previous two years, but down from 760 in 2010. Meth incidents include labs, dumpsite and manufacturing components cases.

Four other lawmakers sponsoring the package all represent districts near the Lower Peninsula's southwestern shore. The House bills now go to the Senate, while the House takes up related Senate bills.

The legislation requires Michigan State Police to report meth convictions to a national database that tracks real-time pharmacy sales of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Michigan began using the system in 2011 to generate stop-sale orders for someone who tries to purchase more than the legal amount, State Police Sgt. Amy Dehner said. An alert is generated if someone buys more than 3.6 grams in a day, or more than 9 grams in 30 days.

With the new act in place, the system would also alert a pharmacist if a person trying to buy the drugs has had a meth-related conviction in the past 10 years. People with records could only buy the medicine with a prescription.

Dehner said the system has improved officers' ability to track people suspected of meth offenses, but she could not provide data. Before using the national database, pharmacies used written ledgers "kind of on the honor system," she said. The real-time online database allows police to get "information more rapidly."

"I can see Joe Smith tried to buy at six different places in the Lansing area and he's been over his quantity in the last six weeks," Dehner said. "At the very least, it could lead to an investigation."

Twenty-nine states including Michigan use the database to track ephedrine or pseudoephedrine sales, but only five of them have stop-sale measures in place for people with meth convictions, Dehner said. Michigan would become the sixth, along with Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama and Illinois.

Michigan Pharmacists Association government affairs manager Amanda Lick said the database works well for pharmacists and the association supports the laws.

The bill package also makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine to buy or possess any ephedrine or pseudoephedrine knowing that it will be used to make meth. It makes soliciting people to buy those drugs -- smurfing -- up to a 10-year felony or a $10,000 fine.

"Typically it's younger people that get involved because someone asks them, 'Hey, here's 20 or 40 bucks, go buy it for me,"' Kivela said. "And what happens is all of a sudden, they start maybe sampling the product a little bit, and now they're (smurfing) instead of for money, for a little cut of the drug."

Marquette County Prosecutor Matt Wiese said the legislation "doesn't quite hit the mark" because smurfs can already be prosecuted for co-conspiring to manufacture meth, which is a 20-year felony. The smurfing bills may not help as much as lawmakers intended, but are "a step in the right direction" for raising awareness of meth abuse, he said.

"It would be better if we made Sudafed a prescription drug rather than pass a smurfing law," Weise said. "I believe the Legislature compromised on this point."

The term smurfing is a play on the animated television show "The Smurfs," Kivela said.

"Papa Smurf used to go get all his underlings to go do his work for him," he said.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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