Don’t be a smurf: Law enforcement cracks down on pseudoephedrine laundering

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 12, 2017

 Pierre Boutros, a Birmingham city commissioner and the owner of Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary, speaks about the new campaign. He’s joined by Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, left, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Eric Liu, of the Michigan Pharmacists Association.

Pierre Boutros, a Birmingham city commissioner and the owner of Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary, speaks about the new campaign. He’s joined by Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, left, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Eric Liu, of the Michigan Pharmacists Association.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BIRMINGHAM — Smurfing isn’t just limited to cartoons anymore. It’s a serious crime, and law enforcement officials are happy to put cuffs on any smurf they come across.

That was the message last week as Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette met at Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary in Birmingham to discuss the crime of smurfing and the tough consequences that come along with it.

As the pair explained, smurfing occurs when a drug cook — often a methamphetamine maker — persuades someone else to purchase behind-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines that can be used to make meth.

Since pharmacies have begun tracking purchases of medications like pseudoephedrine, meth makers can have trouble purchasing the pills themselves and will ask friends or even strangers outside of pharmacies to make the purchase for them or use their identification to get around the monitors.

“Don’t be a smurf,” Schuette said at Mills June 7. “It’s against the law, and you’ll spend time in jail.”

He noted that smurfs, if caught, could face up to a year in jail and $5,000 in fines for an offense.

Bouchard explained that the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEX, is the nationwide system that pharmacies use to track the purchase of pseudoephedrine, and police can directly access it. NPLEX is mandatory for pharmacies, unlike the Michigan Automated Prescription System, or MAPS, which was set up to monitor opioid prescriptions.

As of late 2016, Michigan legislators had amended the NPLEX mandate to include a registry, blocking convicted or attempted pseudoephedrine or ephedrine solicitors from purchasing the medications for five to 10 years.

Since NPLEX was launched in 2014, it’s helped block the sale of 84,000 boxes of the substances from being illegally sold, Bouchard said. “So it’s working. Law enforcement is tuned in to this problem, pharmacists are tuned in, and now we want the public to be tuned in.”

Pierre Boutros, a Birmingham city commissioner and the owner of Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary, said his team is happy to provide the products to law-abiding citizens, but they are diligent about blocking smurfs.

“There are medications that are safe, effective, affordable and accessible behind the counter,” he said, noting that more than 2,000 Michigan pharmacies are part of NPLEX. “But know you are being watched. If you are smurfing for a meth cook, you will be caught.”

Schuette said that while meth isn’t yet a comparable problem to opioids and heroin in terms of overdose deaths in Michigan, he described drug addiction as a problem that can’t be stopped by police alone.

“It depends on which community you’re in, which one trumps the other. In some places we see meth but not as much heroin, and in other places it’s the opposite. I’d say meth is (more prevalent) in rural or less populated communities,” he said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this. But it’s like a speeding train, and we’re trying to slow it down.”

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