Jefferson County police knew whom they were looking for: A computer program had flagged two men for buying illegal amounts of a cold and allergy medicine used to make methamphetamine.
Months of tips and chasing led nowhere, until police broke down a door Thursday at a home in Crystal City and found the two by chance.
The two meth cooks were using a toxic mix of chemicals to make the drug, endangering a 5-year-old in the home. As the two men lay on the floor in handcuffs, police asked the child's pregnant mother to put his shoes on so he could go outside. Once outdoors, the boy squirmed in his Spider-Man shoes
"Hey, officer, there's something in my shoe," he said.
He took off his shoe and held it upside down. A tightly packed piece of foil no bigger than a pen cap fell out. Detective Jim Vargas found meth residue on the burned foil.
"It makes me feel good that at least we were able to get here and get him out," Vargas said. "We've been chasing these people for a long time."
The moment illustrates why police believe a drastic measure making its way through the Missouri Legislature to make some over-the-counter products available only by prescription is needed to curb the meth epidemic in the Midwest.
Opponents say Missouri should spend more than $1 million to equip the state's pharmacies with software to track purchases of meth's main ingredient, pseudoephedrine.
But that software - already in use in several pharmacies in Jefferson County - didn't stop the 5-year-old's addicted family members from making meth
Federal and state laws set monthly limits on the amount of pseudoephedrine products that can be legally purchased. Those limits are equivalent to two 15-dose boxes of 24-hour Claritin D or six boxes of 24-dose Sudafed.
Like most meth cooks, the child's grandfather and family friends find ways around the laws. They buy illegal amounts, but shop at pharmacies that don't track pill purchases at other stores. They use fake IDs or old addresses. And they pay other people to buy their pills.
"It's like we're chasing ghosts," Vargas said
And the phantom activity is flourishing in the struggling economy.
Missouri and Illinois saw a resurgence in meth lab busts last year, due in part to people buying legal amounts of pills and selling the $7 boxes for as much as $60, said Cpl. Scott Poe, commander of the Jefferson County Drug Taskforce.
"Pill shopping has become a source of subsidizing income for people who would otherwise not normally get involved in meth, because it is so profitable," Poe said. Among the excuses police hear from those selling pills is the need to pay back child support, utility bills and other expenses for the recently unemployed. "The only way to eradicate this problem is prescription status," said Poe
GOING TOO FAR?
Opponents of the prescription-only plan, including the Missouri Retailers Association, say it would be unfair to inconvenience consumers for the actions of a few and require doctor visits for colds or allergies. The state should give the software program a chance, said Dave Overfelt, the group's president
"The consumer will have to spend more time, money and effort, and crime won't go down," Overfelt said. "I don't believe that just because you pass the prescription law, the meth problem is going away. They're going to find ways around the prescription law."
So far, Oregon is the only state to adopt a prescription policy. Police there say pill shoppers, or smurfers, can't skirt the law because it takes a lot of pseudoephedrine to make meth, and the smurfers can't convince enough people to get prescriptions
Other states believe in the software Missouri is proposing. Oklahoma's version links pharmacies in a computer database, calculates consumers' pseudoephedrine purchases and alerts sales clerks if someone is about to exceed the limit. Still, the system has flaws.
In 2007 - the first full year Oklahoma had the program - meth lab busts totaled 148. The number rose to 213 in 2008, said Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward.
"One reason we're seeing labs increase is because people are using multiple IDs at the counter, with different information," Woodward said.
Oklahoma legislators plan to track pill purchases through birth dates. But Woodward said the state might consider the prescription approach if meth cases became "unmanageable."
"We think it's a drastic measure," he added.
Some Missouri pharmacies already use the software.
In Jefferson County, which has long led the state in meth lab busts, Vargas and his fellow narcotics officers say the software helps track pseudoephedrine sales at three of the county's 25 or so pharmacies. Those that do not have the software keep paper sales logs or give police lists of pseudoephedrine buys, when officers find the time to pick them up.
But, as Vargas and the rest of Jefferson County's "meth cowboys" have found, the software takes them only so far. The addresses on drivers licenses are valid only about a third of the time. That means detectives spend hours trying to locate pill shoppers.
And the chase isn't fun.
"So far we've driven 45 miles and spent two hours looking for this guy," Vargas said of one pill shopper. "And this is only one guy. That address will be on his license until it expires in 2012, and it's not even valid."
In January, police found about 20 meth labs in Jefferson County.
At the height of Oregon's meth problem, police found about 40 meth labs a month. That changed in 2006 when state legislators voted 90-9 to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, as it was before 1976.
In 2007, the first full year of the policy, police seized 18 labs. They found 21 labs total in 2008, most of them near the state's borders with unregulated states.
STATE AND FEDERAL EFFORTS
Thanks to his state's success, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plans to propose the prescription approach at the federal level this spring.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she would consider it.
"Claire has a long history of fighting meth going back to her days as Jackson County prosecutor," said spokeswoman Maria Speiser. "She's looking forward to reviewing Wyden's bill to give her input and support."
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Wyden is gathering endorsements from various groups in his state, including the pharmacists association that originally balked at the idea.
Oregon State Pharmacists Association President Ken Wells said pharmacists had feared consumer backlash. But once the policy took effect, Wells said, there wasn't one.
Consumers learned that pharmacists could call in prescriptions for them. Some saw insurance pick up their allergy and cold medicines. Others appreciated no longer having to provide personal identification at the counter, Wells said.
Some Missouri legislators aren't waiting for the federal government to act. The Missouri House's Crime Committee voted last week in favor of a bill to make the drug prescription-only and sent the bill to the House Rules Committee. A similar plan in the Senate ignited some spirited debate last month but has not progressed.
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, said electronic tracking was too costly and didn't have a big enough impact.
"Do we once again take an incremental approach to this problem, knowing we'll have to put it at prescription status eventually? Then we'll be out the money we spent on the software when other states in the country have done it and haven't seen a huge impact," Lipke said. "Oregon basically wiped it off the face of their state."
This year, a Rand study put the cost of the nation's meth epidemic at $23.4 billion. That includes $905 million for foster care and $4 billion for police work and criminal justice costs.
The Missouri Division of Family Services took custody of the 5-year-old boy removed from the meth lab Thursday in Crystal City, along with his 7-year-old brother, who was at school during the raid.
Within hours, Vargas and the rest of the officers began the hunt for the next smurfer on the list.
They jumped into their cars, headed for the suspect's last known address.
And the chase continues.