By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006
Coming soon to your neighborhood pharmacy: an undercover Fairfax County police officer interested in buying ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, found in cold and allergy medications and a key ingredient in manufacturing methamphetamine.
The undercover purchases will be part of an initiative launched by the organized crime and narcotics division to enforce a law that went into effect Saturday in Virginia limiting sales to no more than 3.6 grams of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine a day for any person.
"The impetus for these operations is to prevent methamphetamine labs from being established in Fairfax County," said Lt. Stephen Thompson, the division's assistant commander.
Methamphetamine, an addictive stimulant commonly known as speed or chalk, is made from readily available retail products that are cooked in home laboratories. Use of the stimulant has spread across the country, though Thompson said no labs had been found in Northern Virginia.
"Our concern is based on the experiences of southern Virginia," Thompson said at a news conference last week. "These lab sites are toxic due to the chemicals that are involved in the manufacturing of methamphetamine." He said the labs presented a potentially lethal environment to those who live in surrounding houses and apartments.
Thompson said that labs are sometimes discovered only after an explosion and fire.
"The manufacturing process itself creates a hazardous waste site that carries a pretty hefty price tag and affects the property values of nearby homes when a site is in operation," Thompson said. "Those are the things we want to prevent in Fairfax County."
A second phase of the law takes effect Sept. 30, he said, when ephedrine and pseudoephedrine must be kept behind store counters or in locked cases. He said that customers will have to present a valid ID to purchase the products. In addition, he said, stores must keep a log with the name and address of the purchaser, as well as the date and amount purchased. He said police will review the logs.
He said that many of the violations police find will be the result of people not knowing about the law, but willful violations are punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.
Thompson acknowledged that someone intending to manufacture methamphetamine could go to more than one store and make multiple purchases, but the names of those individuals would show up in purchase logs.
"In my opinion, the bigger effect of this law is it prevents wholesale shoplifting of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which is probably the preferred method of the persons cooking meth to obtain it, instead of paying for it," Thompson said.
Although police have not discovered any methamphetamine labs in Northern Virginia, Thompson said that about a year ago several people were arrested in Fairfax County for possession, and an additional "small handful" were arrested for shoplifting Sudafed, which they said they were going to use to manufacture the drug.
Unlike drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which come from overseas, methamphetamine can be made with ingredients bought at a store.
"Methamphetamine is referred to as poor man's cocaine," Thompson said. "It is comparably inexpensive to produce. Everything you need to make methamphetamine is available over the counter."