Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Thursday announced a new public awareness campaign that will attempt to reverse Michigan’s losing battle against methamphetamine use and production.
The campaign targets “smurfing,” the practice of purchasing over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine to use as a precursor for meth, a highly addictive stimulant.
Posters paid for by the Consumer Healthcare Productions Association, a trade group representing medicine manufacturers, will be distributed to pharmacists and retailers reminding the public that “police take NAMES… and make ARRESTS” for buying medications to make meth.
“If you are a runner, if you’re one of the helpers for these meth cooks, you do the crime, you’ll spend some time,” Schuette said. “The whole point is we want to alert folks that the meth epidemic is real.”
Michigan implemented a precursor database in 2011 that tracks pseudoephedrine purchases and prohibits over-the-counter sales if an individual has exceeded allowable limits in a 24-hour or month-long period.
That database helped block sales of more than 8,700 boxes of cold and allergy medicine in 2016, said sponsoring Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph. The system discourages illegal behavior but balances consumer access to legal medication, he said.
But the real-time tracking database is having little effect on the availability of pseudoephedrine to meth lab operators, according to a 2016 report by the Michigan State Police. Rather, evidence suggests smurfing has significantly increased since the database legislation was passed.
“Smurfers frequently use fraudulent or stolen identities to make these purchases,” according to the report. “This makes real-time electronic tracking ineffective in stopping the statewide illegal manufacture of methamphetamine.”
It’s not clear how much the national trade association will spend on the public education campaign posters, but Vice President Carlos Gutierrez said the group is “in it to do whatever it takes to do the job.” He was joined by representatives from the Michigan Retailers Association, Michigan Pharmacists Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
Crime statistics show meth production remains a growing problem in Michigan.
There were 1,180 meth-related incidents that required hazardous material cleanup efforts by law enforcement agencies in 2015, a 25 percent increase over 2014, according to state police. A majority of the sites were in southwest Michigan, including 271 in Kalamazoo and 154 in Paw Paw.
While it is difficult to isolate meth-specific charges because of the variety of arrests codes used at crime scenes, state police say there were 668 Michigan arrests for meth possession in 2015, up from 468 in 2014 and 501 in 2013.
Schuette and Proos said it is incumbent upon retailers and pharmacists who use the database to properly check driver’s licenses or state identification cards.
“It’s a two-way responsibility,” Schuette said. “Everybody bears responsibility on this, whether it’s a fake ID for buying pseudoephedrine or a fake ID for buying alcohol. There is responsibility on the retailers and the pharmacists, no doubt about it.”