Meth law has raised hopes

WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement officials are cautiously commemorating the one-year anniversary of an anti-methamphetamine law that has targeted the drug once rampant in the Central Valley.

A 41 percent reduction in meth lab seizures nationwide shows the bill's effectiveness, officials declared Tuesday. More than 76,000 retailers have registered as sellers of the cold medicines sometimes used illicitly by meth-making gangs.

"There is evidence that we are making progress," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said at a Senate hearing.

But shortcomings have become apparent in the law that took full effect in September 2006, officials add. Stores, for instance, may be registering under the new law -- but because the stores lack a national database, gang members can circumvent limits on drug purchases.

"Don't get me wrong, I think the law is terrific," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, "but there are things that need to be tweaked."

The Central Valley HIDTA helps coordinate state, local and federal anti-drug efforts between Sacramento and Bakersfield. The eight-year-old program was one of the first of its kind to target methamphetamine, although its focus has expanded as the valley's illicit meth industry has slipped away.

In 2002, officials seized 1,744 meth labs in California. By last year, with many labs reportedly having moved to Mexico, lab seizures in California had fallen to 353.

Sponsored in part by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the "Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act" required that retailers selling medicines containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or a third, related chemical must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The stores must keep the drugs behind the counter. Customers must sign a logbook and are limited to buying nine grams a month.

The logbooks, though, aren't required to be electronically connected, so there is no easy way to track customers' overall purchases. Ruzzamenti said a Modesto-area gang earlier this year exploited that loophole by hiring the homeless and sending them to different stores throughout the valley. They were signing logbooks, but the logbooks from different stores weren't being compared or tallied.

"There needs to be some kind of database," Ruzzamenti said. "We need some way to connect the dots."

A top Drug Enforcement Administration official agreed Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee. Some stores maintain paper logbooks, others keep electronic records. The official added that an estimated 30,000 or so sellers of regulated chemicals have not registered.

"There are still a significant number of sellers of these products who have not self-certified," noted Joseph Rannazzisi, the DEA's deputy assistant administrator.

Later this month, the federal agency will conduct a mass mailing to potentially affected businesses.

"Initial compliance with the Combat Meth Act was challenging for the chain pharmacy industry," acknowledged Montana-based pharmacist Peter Wolfgram, representing the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

But federal drug officials cited other signs of progress. In 2003, for example, 3,663 children were reported to have been exposed to toxic meth labs nationwide. This year, the number of exposed children has dropped to 319.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.