Pharmacists & Retailers Join Together to Launch Anti-'Smurfing' Campaign

AUGUSTA, Maine (WABI) - Retailers and pharmacists have joined together to educate the public about a criminal enterprise in Maine known as 'smurfing'.

"'Smurfing' is the practice of basically hiring somebody to go to a pharmacy and purchase illegally pseudoephedrine containing products, which are behind the counter at the pharmacy," said Cassandra Parsons, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association.

Pseudoephedrine, or PSE, is the FDA approved ingredient found in many over-the-counter cough, cold, and allergy medications.

Criminals sometimes divert PSE from its intended use to produce methamphetamine.

"Everyone knows that you can't buy alcohol or tobacco for a minor, but not everyone knows that the same rules apply to many common cold and allergy medications," said Amelia Arnold, board member of the Retail Association of Maine.

When purchasing Sudafed, Claritin, Mucinex, or any number of other cold meds, a customer must provide identification for the drug.

The National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx system, is used across 34 states to keep the ingredient out of the hands of criminals by tracking and blocking sales.

"It actually checks your information against the national database and lets you know if you're within your limits for three month or within the 48 hour period to purchase. Last year they blocked over 6,000 sales in the state of Maine," said Arnold.

"Those could have potentially been for illegal purposes and diverted into meth labs, and when you only need two boxes essentially to make a meth lab, that counts," said Carold Gutierrez, Vice President of State & Local Government Affairs CHPA.

To combat local meth production, posters and signage will be displayed in the coming weeks at pharmacies and retailers to inform the public at the point of sale that 'smurfing' is a serious criminal offense.

"These posters are not subtle, their message is clear- if you buy pseudoephedrine-based products for a stranger or a meth criminal, you are breaking the law," said Arnold.

"It's not worth it just to get a few bucks here and there to try to support somebody who's basically aiding a drug crisis that we have in here in Maine," said Parsons.

While proponents of the anti-smurfing campaign say it's not a silver bullet that will eliminate meth production in the state, they say it does strike a balance between preventing illegal access to the ingredient without impeding honest consumers from accessing the medicines they need and trust.