By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Police and prosecutors fighting the methamphetamine epidemic won a small victory recently, when the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the use of an electronic registry that tracks the legal sale of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth.
The appeals court ruled that information in the registry, the National Precursor Log Exchange, could be used as evidence under the “business record exception” to the hearsay rule, which otherwise excludes testimony or documents that quote people not in court.
It was a victory because of the critical role the registry plays in Indiana’s efforts to curb meth: Investigators use it to find “smurfers” — people who get paid by meth makers to go from one pharmacy to the next to buy pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicine. In the case that went to the appeals court, information in the registry was used to build a drug-dealing case against a 24-year-old Southern Indiana man who was part of family meth-making operation, cooking up the chemically volatile, highly addictive drug in their home.
But I also use the word “small” to describe the legal victory’s effect on what can only be called a scourge, if you define that word, as Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary does: “A source of widespread dreadful affliction and devastation such as that caused by pestilence or war.”
You can measure the dreadful damage in any number of ways:
• By the millions of public and private dollars spent on cleaning up toxic meth labs, including $17 million spent just by Indiana State Police since 1995.
• Or by the record 1,726 meth lab busts made by the Indiana State Police last year — more than twice the busts made by ISP in 2006.
• Or by the average cost of a hospital stay of a meth patient, most of them uninsured, injured when their home-grown meth lab bursts into flames: $130,000, according to an Associated Press study last year of the most active meth states which, sadly, includes Indiana.
Or by the horrifying number of children found by police busting the clandestine meth labs in bedrooms, basements and backyards throughout Indiana. In 2012 alone, there were 372 of them, including the 2-year-old son of that defendant in the court of appeals case. Many of those children tested positive for meth, having been exposed to it just by breathing in the chemical fumes produced when their caretakers were cooking up the drug.
Or we could measure it by the countless police reports that frighteningly mirror the fictional meth-maker Walter White on TV’s “Breaking Bad.” In that court of appeals case, police who found that 2-year-old also discovered a laptop computer which showed the last Internet searches made on it before the bust: “how to manufacture methamphetamine” and “how to silently kill someone.”
Almost every year since 2005, the Indiana General Assembly has debated legislation aimed at restricting access to the cold medicines that contain meth’s primary precursor. And each time it passes a new law tightening those restrictions, legislators hail it as the right fix.
This year is no different: They rejected a measure favored by the Indiana State Police and mayors of the most scourge-ravaged communities that would have returned pseudoephedrine to its long-ago controlled status — requiring a doctor’s prescription to buy it. They approved a bill, favored by cold-medicine makers and many legitimate users, that instead further limits the amount of pseudoephedrine a consumer can buy over the counter to what amounts to about an eight-month supply.
I’m allergy-suffering, legitimate user of pseudoephedrine and go nowhere without it, but I’m willing to risk my eight-month supply on a sure bet: Absent some drastic action by the General Assembly, I’ll be reading and writing about clandestine meth labs and 2-year-olds in harm’s way for years to come.