(THE TENNESSEAN) A 2-year-old state law requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to maintain a meth offender database that pharmacists can use to ensure they don't sell pseudoephedrine to anyone who has a meth conviction.
But scores of convicted methamphetamine users are not being entered into the Tennessee Meth Offender Registry, leaving addicts and drug sellers free to walk into any of the state's 1,200 pharmacies and purchase over-the-counter cold medicines — the main ingredient used to make meth.
As a result, no one in the state can say with any certainty just how many Tennesseans have been convicted of meth crimes — or how many have been able to go back and purchase more meth ingredients — at a time when law enforcement officials believe the drug has hit epidemic proportions. Tennessee is now on track to be No. 1 in the nation for meth lab seizures, according to the TBI.
"We do the best we can, but, no, the registry does not include everyone it should," conceded Special Agent Tommy Farmer, who directs the Tennessee Meth and Pharmaceutical Task Force.
Farmer said the TBI's hands are tied in keeping the registry up to date. The agency must rely on criminal-court clerks to provide conviction information, he said.
"The clerks are in the same business we are," Farmer said. "We provide the information about what they have to report. We can send them a letter saying, 'Hey, you should send this information.' But we're basically at their mercy."
'Dropping the ball'
Just 65 of Tennessee's 95 counties have reported meth convictions to the TBI this year, Farmer said. Some reports come into his office without the necessary information, while other counties that do report to the registry are reporting only a fraction of their cases.
Adding to the problem is that many meth offenders are convicted under broader state drug laws, making it difficult for criminal-court clerks, who are required to report the convictions to the TBI, to distinguish meth crimes from marijuana, cocaine or other offenses.
"Something's not adding up here," said Rep. Vance Dennis, a Republican from Savannah, Tenn., who helped usher in a 2011 law to expand and improve the registry.
Noting that Knox County has a well-known meth problem, but that only two individuals from the county are on the registry, Dennis said: "I would be shocked if there were only two meth-related convictions in Knox County in last 12 months. So, somewhere somebody is dropping the ball on getting the information reported correctly. The whole reason we have the registry is to keep that essential ingredient in meth production out of the hands of people who have criminal intent.''
John Gill, special counsel at the Knox County District Attorneys Office, said that he can't confirm whether the two convictions encompass all meth offenders in his county. But Gill cautioned that major felony convictions are rare.
"Two in 2012 could be right," he said. Other offenses are tracked under broader drug conviction statutes that don't distinguish meth from other drugs, he said.
Bedford County, south of Nashville, has reported no meth convictions in the county since 2011, when it reported one meth offender. The only other meth conviction listed in the county is from 2009.
Bedford County Circuit Court Clerk Thomas Smith said it's not possible for his county to accurately report to the TBI misdemeanor meth offenses required by law when conviction data don't clearly label which drug the offender used, made or sold.
"If they're a meth conviction, I wouldn't know," he said.
Tennessee's registry, created in 2005, was the nation's first to track meth, but it wasn't until 2011 that lawmakers passed a law requiring the database to be connected to a system that pharmacists use to comply with a state law limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine consumers can buy.
The 2011 law also requires pharmacists to check photo IDs of all customers purchasing pseudoephedrine and match them with a pharmacy industry database, known as National Precursor Log Exchange.
That database is linked to the state's meth registry and is designed to instantaneously flag a customer who is on the meth registry or who has reached the legal limits for buying pseudophedrine in Tennessee.
That limit is 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day (equivalent to about three 10-pill packages of moderate-strength cold medicine) unless a person has a valid prescription for more.
Any customer who matches the registry or who has hit the legal limit generates a "stop sale alert" that pops up on the pharmacist's computer screen. The flag does not tell pharmacists if an individual has a conviction or has simply reached the legal limit for meth purchases. Pharmacists can then use their own discretion in denying a sale or allowing one to a customer they believe has a valid reason to make the purchase.
The state's pharmacists also are concerned about the meth offender registry's deficiencies, said Baeteena Black, executive director of the Tennessee Pharmacists Association..
"Our effort can only be as good as the information contained in the registry that sits behind our computer systems," Black said.
Currently, Tennessee's meth registry lists 4,575 people statewide. Oklahoma, in comparison, lists 11,417 people on its registry, although it has half the population and far fewer recorded meth lab seizures. In 2012, Oklahoma officials discovered 678 meth labs, versus 1,585 found and seized in this state, according to data compiled by federal authorities.
Anyone with a meth-related conviction must be placed on the online registry for seven years and is banned from purchasing pseudoephedrine during that time, according to state law.
The registry also is used by state government, landlords, real estate agents, child care facilities and employers to vet future tenants or potential employees.
The TBI's Farmer points out that the registry is one small tool in the uphill battle against meth use, which has exploded in Tennessee in the past decade. Even when individuals are properly placed on the registry, it doesn't always stop them from buying meth ingredients at local pharmacies, he noted.
Pharmacists refused to sell pseudoephedrine to 274 people who were on the meth registry in the first half of 2012, Farmer said. But despite an automatic "stop sale" flag in pharmacists' computer system, 353 individuals on the meth registry were allowed to make 1,365 separate buys of the ingredient at pharmacies around the state, Farmer said.
"No registry, no matter how good it is, is going to stop meth," said Farmer, who believes the only effective way to combat the epidemic is to return pseudoephedrine to prescription-only status.