Meth Watch launched in Pierce County

Retail owners and law enforcement officers gathered Tuesday morning at the Best Western Fife Hotel and Conference Center to launch a new program in Pierce County aimed at stopping methamphetamine cooks from buying the common ingredients used to make the homemade drug.

“Our purpose today is to begin a new campaign against methamphetamine,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor told those gathered for the breakfast event to mark the start of Meth Watch.

“We need to enlist retailers against meth,” he said.

Pierce County is one of 24 counties statewide to offer the free ongoing program that provides retailers support and education on how to protect their customers and reduce the sale and theft of precursor materials that criminals use to manufacture meth.

The program, which got started in Spokane last year, is funded by federal, state and local money.

Precursor materials – which Pastor said are often as close as the corner store – include acetone, lithium batteries and anhydrous ammonia. However, the most problematic precursor material is pseudoephedrine, an ingredient found in many cold medications.

“It’s a precursor problem in our communities and our neighborhoods,” said sheriff’s detective Chad Redinbo, former precursor chemical investigator with the department.

“This is the most important thing,” he said, holding up an empty box of Sudafed. “Without this, you can’t make meth.”

The solution may seem simple, said Jason Moulton, a former FBI agent who now works as director of loss prevention for Safeway Inc. Simply locking up the appropriate cold medications means it won’t be available to the legitimate customer, he said, and could end up hurting the store’s bottom line.

Often times meth cooks and addicts will go to great lengths to steal cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, Moulton said, showing video stills of a couple removing an entire locked cabinet of cold medications and putting it in a shopping cart and attempting to leave the store.

Moulton said the meth problem has changed the way Safeway displays its cold medications, which have been the subject of a high rate of theft.

A 2001 survey found that up to 47 percent of such products disappeared from store shelves. After taking action, that percentage dropped to just under 26 percent last year.

Some of his recommendations include:

– Remove high theft products from open shelving.

– Limit the number of meth-related items that can be purchased.

– Keep a watch for people who buy large quantities of ingredients that are used to make meth.

– Post signage indicating that the store is part of the Meth Watch program.

– Report suspicious activities to the proper law enforcement authorities.

– Elevate the criminal status of the shoplifting of items involving precursor materials. Also, coordinate with prosecutors to ensure disparate treatment of those who steal such items.

Public-private partnerships are essential in defeating the meth epidemic, Moulton noted.

“Cooperation is the backbone of effective law enforcement,” he said.

“We’re asking you to join our coalition,” said Priscilla Lisicich, executive director of Safe Streets.

Referring to it as a “methedemic,” Pastor said this is a drug problem the whole community must continue to battle.

“We have seen success here,” he said, noting the intense pressure law enforcement has put on meth users and manufactures in recent years.

While the number of meth labs and dump sites decreased between 2001 and 2002, that has plateaued, Pastor said, and the numbers are starting to go up.

Pierce County is the center of meth-related activity in the state and could be on track to have more than 500 meth labs and dump sites by the end of the year. According to the Department of Ecology, the number of meth labs and dump sites in Pierce County for January through April of this year is 175. By comparison, King County had the second highest number, with 72.