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Steuben, Noble counties top list of blocked sales of meth precursor

10.22.16 – Steve Garbacz, KPC News

Steuben County had the most per­capita pseudoephedrine sales blocked of any county in the state during the first half of the year, with Noble County not far behind.

Pseudoephedrine is a key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine, and blocked sales are one measure of how many people attempted to make suspicious purchases of the over-the-counter drug.

Steuben County was No. 1 overall for both total grams and total boxes of pseudoephedrine products that were blocked compared to population. Noble County was No. 2 when considering total boxes and No. 3 on grams blocked.

DeKalb County was 49th and LaGrange County ranked 78th of Indiana’s 92 counties for blocked sales per capita.

That’s according to recent statistics from the pseudoephedrine­tracking National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) used in Indiana.

Considering only volume, Noble County was 15th and Steuben County was 17th overall for grams blocked. Marion County, with the largest population, finished at the overall top for strictly volume, with 7,086 grams blocked.

Of the top 20 counties for total volume blocked, Noble and Steuben counties were two of just three counties with a population less than 100,000 people. The other, Floyd County, has a much larger population of about 77,000 people.

Noble County perennially finishes near the top statewide for most meth lab seizures — finishing in No. 2 in 2015 with 70 seizures — but Steuben County has never been within the top 10. DeKalb and LaGrange counties each has been within the top 10 at least once since 2004.

NPLEx blocks illegal sales of cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine at the point of sale when consumers reach limits set by the state. The system also works across borders, as 32 other states use the database.

Statewide, NPLEx helped block purchases of 75,500 grams of pseudoephedrine in the first half of the year.

Blocked sales could significantly increase in the future. State lawmakers added an additional restriction, which now blocks anyone with a felony meth­related conviction from purchasing pseudoephedrine without a valid prescription. That took effect July 1, so any impact isn’t reflected in the current data.

“NPLEx has been an important resource for our state in the fight against meth production,” said 93rd District state Rep. Dave Frizzell, R­Indianapolis, in a press release accompanying the data. “By blocking the potential illegal purchase of pseudoephedrine right at the point of sale, and providing data to law enforcement to seek out meth cooks, it has been invaluable to ensuring that those who need cold and allergy medicine still have access, while meth cooks have a significant barrier to an important precursor.”

Local sheriffs weren’t surprised by the volume of blocked sales due to ongoing struggles with methamphetamine in the four­county area.

Although Steuben County topped the ranking, Sheriff Tim Troyer didn’t feel there was a new wave of meth activity in his county. Since it’s a corner county bordering both Michigan and Ohio, some of the volume could be from people crossing state lines hoping to buy pseudoephedrine in Indiana.

But the numbers show that the electronic system is working effectively to keep people from getting precursors, he said.

“NPLEx just stops people from being able to purchase that are over the threshhold,” Troyer said. “The people that are on there aren’t violating the law. The way NPLEx is set up, it stops them from violating the law.”

Actually, police have noticed a recent decrease in the numbers of people cooking meth and meth trash being found in the counties. Instead, they’re seeing an increase in crystal meth that is being imported into the area.

“That’s definitely the case, we’re not getting nearly the amount of meth labs or meth trash,” Noble County Sheriff Doug Harp said. “We’ve been seeing and hearing a lot more about imported crystal meth, which I would say is foreseeable. If you dry up the meth labs, then you’re going to get more imported meth.”

It’s not clear whether that switch has been due to continuing efforts to tighten restrictions on obtaining pseudoephedrine such as NPLEx or some other reason, but the change represents both some positives and negatives.

On the plus side, fewer meth labs means police aren’t tied up responding to trash and cleanup requests, Harp said. Fewer meth labs also means fewer health hazards in homes or public areas where the drug is being made.

And with imported meth, officers who are able to find and arrest a dealer with a large quantity are able to quickly take a large amount of drugs off the street, he said.

On the negative side, if people are importing meth, it can be easier for dealers to distribute a large amount of drugs to a lot of people and could lead to new addicts being introduced to the drug, Troyer said.

Cooking typically produces a small amount that is split up between the cook and “smurfs,” people who supplied materials, with little or none left over for dealing, he said. Also, with imported meth, if a large supply floods into the region, that could drive down the price and make it more accessible, Harp said.

“The importation of the drug is actually more dangerous to us, and I’m not trying to minimize manufacturing, it’s not good,” Troyer said. “The manufacturing doesn’t create new addicts like the importation does.”

If meth users shift to a more typical dealer/buyer model instead of cooking, that will make NPLEx less useful for investigations. Although NPLEx alone can’t be used to arrest someone for meth, it’s been a useful tool for police to check if they had other evidence on a person they suspect of cooking, Troyer said.

If meth users change methods, Harp doesn’t expect a major change in difficulty of finding and arresting users and dealers, even if cooks do leave more of a paper trail than drug dealers. The regional drug task force remains plugged in and should be able to work its way through a supply chain, ideally being able to seize larger amounts of meth during busts.

“You can do one traffic stop and get a lot more drugs off the street with one traffic stop when it’s imported. The meth problem in Noble County is never going to go away, but the meth labs have really been taking their toll on resources,” Harp said. “We still generate information from sources as far as who is slinging, and some of the people that we may have had information on that were cooking and now they’re going more toward imported, they’re not going to walk away.”

For people who do continue to try to cook their own meth, Harp expects the NPLEx will continue to do its job in the future, maybe even better if meth convicts are banned from buying any amount, he said.

“Overall it’s worked well, and it’s definitely made an impact. Definitely we’ve seen it,” Harp said. NPLEx system blocks pseudoephedrine sales

The statewide electronic system prevents people from purchasing medicines with pseudoephedrine in them if they’ve hit a limit for that type of drug in a years time. Here’s how many purchases were blocked in the four­county region for the first half of 2016.

Steuben County
Grams blocked: 1,359.24
Population: 34,372
Per capita rate: 1 gram per 25.29 people Rank: 1

Noble County
Grams blocked: 1511.16
Population: 47,733
Per capita rate: 1 gram per 31.59 people Rank: 3

DeKalb County Grams blocked: 336.63
Population: 42,589
Per capita rate: 1 gram per 126.52 people Rank: 49

LaGrange County Grams blocked: 134.76
Population: 38,809
Per capita rate: 1 gram per 287.99 people Rank: 78
Sources: NPLEx and U.S. Census Bureau

This article appeared in KPC News on October 22, 2016.