Technology Helps Arkansas Fight Meth Manufacturers

Electronic logbook helps Arkansas authorities track purchases of ingredients to make methamphetamines.

by / December 8, 2008

Whatever your opinion is on the so-called war on drugs, it's hard to ignore the devastating effects addictive drugs have on abusers. One of the most popular and destructive drugs abused today is methamphetamine, a.k.a. "meth." The explanation for high levels of meth usage is the same for its severe consequences -- the toxic ingredients to make it are readily available at grocery and drugstores.

Meth is a potent stimulant and a sympathomimetic drug (i.e., it simulates the sympathetic nervous system) that increases users' alertness and mimics the effects of naturally occurring hormones, like adrenaline and dopamine. But there are side effects, like "hyperthermia, convulsions, brain aneurysms, strokes, arrhythmia, severe dental problems, and -- after prolonged use -- collapse of the cardiovascular system," according to a National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) July 2008 report, The Relationship between State Methamphetamine Precursor Laws and Trends in Small Toxic Lab (STL) Seizures. Other side effects include a ghastly condition nicknamed "meth mouth," in which the teeth and gums rapidly decay. Long-term users also can be startlingly gaunt and prone to extreme violence and promiscuity.

Developed from ephedrine in Germany in 1887, meth was used to treat many ailments, such as narcolepsy, asthma and obesity. It's a toxic cocktail of precursors, many of which were available until recently on store shelves. The most common precursors are ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the latter an active ingredient in cold remedies like Sudafed.

To combat meth production, most states passed legislation moving products containing these precursors off the shelf. In most cases, customers now get the medication by asking a pharmacist, who dispenses the product in limited quantities. Still, meth producers avoid this restriction by visiting multiple pharmacies -- meaning meth production is only temporarily slowed.

However, some states, like Arkansas, deployed electronic logbooks to keep better tabs on who is buying precursors and in what quantities. These logbooks electronically link pharmacies in order to halt purchasing of small amounts of precursors from several retailers.


Stopping Meth

In the last decade, meth has become a more difficult problem in Arkansas. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "Not only does the state's rural landscape provide an ideal setting for illicit manufacturing, but the wide availability of precursor chemicals also contributes to the ease of manufacturing methamphetamine."

Meth is typically manufactured in makeshift labs that are little more than homes or remote hideaways. A meth lab has an assortment of hazardous chemicals mixed and matched by amateur chemists. The chemical concoctions are apt to catch fire and explode.

To combat this double threat of meth usage and manufacturing danger, the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) sought a way to keep digital logs of the sale of precursors so that pharmacies would know whether a person trying to buy specific medications had been shopping at other drugstores in the state. In 2007, the Legislature passed Act 508, which required ACIC to create a real-time statewide electronic logbook for all pharmacies to reduce and ultimately eliminate meth manufacturing.

According to Bill Clinton, operations administrator at ACIC, the legislation plugged the loophole that existed in the prior method of tracking sales of the meth precursors.

"Prior to [Act 508], Arkansas had instituted regulations that required the pharmacies to keep a manual, paper log of their sales of pseudoephedrine," Clinton said. "It didn't take the folks who were cooking meth very long to figure out the drugstores weren't communicating with each other. They could go to 'Drugstore A' and buy their limit, and then go to the next drugstore and buy their limit -- and continue on down the line. It was apparent there was a need for a real-time log all the pharmacies would be connected to so that information could be shared."

ACIC issued an RFP for the electronic logbook and eventually selected Dallas-based LeadsOnlabs. One challenge, however, was getting small, local pharmacies on on par with large, national chains. Small pharmacies don't always have the IT infrastructure to track and report the sale of meth precursors. LeadsOnlabs' solution was to create two different systems that work independently toward the same result.

"There are two scenarios," Clinton explained. "For the larger chain pharmacies, many of them were already collecting this information, so LeadsOnlabs provided them interface specifications and they just submit their information from their systems to LeadsOnlabs. For the smaller pharmacies, there's a Web portal they can access and enter the information into that."

For example, when a shopper at an independently owned pharmacy wants to buy a product containing a meth precursor, the pharmacist first asks for the person's driver's license. Arkansas drivers' licenses feature a bar code that the pharmacist scans. The scan pulls all license data, and the pharmacist then enters it into the Web portal. At a larger chain pharmacy, manually entering license data isn't required. In both instances, the data is sent to a LeadsOnlabs database where it's crosschecked to determine whether the customer is eligible to purchase any of the products.

Arkansas law limits an individual to 9 grams or 300 tablets of pseudoephedrine per month. According to a number of easily discovered meth recipes found on the Web, a typical batch of meth requires approximately 22 pounds of pseudoephedrine.


Testing Positive

As the war on drugs has repeatedly proven, no amount of money or enforcement stops people from manufacturing, selling and abusing drugs. But tools like electronic logbooks make an impact. Both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the NCJRS report a steady decline in meth abuse, and the NCJRS credits programs such as electronic logbooks as a critical driver of the reduction. DEA numbers also suggest that over the past few years the number of meth lab incidents, such as law enforcement seizures, has diminished -- from 714 in Arkansas in 2004 to 240 in 2007.

"I think we're already seeing a reduction in the number of meth labs across the state, and we know people aren't able to buy [the ingredients] like they could," Clinton said.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.