Information for only 5 percent of those convicted turned over to TBI
Roughly 30 people were convicted of methamphetamine-related crimes in Knox County last year, but almost all of them can still buy pseudoephedrine, the drug's main ingredient, despite a state-mandated database that's supposed to alert pharmacists not to sell to offenders.
The problem, though, isn't contained to just 2013.
For more than half a decade, the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk's Office has failed to properly update the Meth Offender Registry, a tool investigators and lawmakers say is crucial to combating the growing methamphetamine problem.
The registry is maintained by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. But, criminal court clerks throughout the state are responsible for providing the bureau with the names, dates of birth and addresses, of those convicted of possessing, selling or manufacturing methamphetamine, according to state law.
Those convicted must be placed on the registry, which can be found online, for seven years. They also are banned from purchasing pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter decongestant found in cold and sinus medicines.
Records, however, show that the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk's Office rarely complies with the law.
For example, the courts have convicted 137 defendants since mid-2008, which is when Joy McCroskey took over the office, according to records. But, her department turned over data for just seven people, or about 5 percent of those convicted.
"That's unfortunate," said Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. "The legislation – you pass things like that – and obviously everyone signed on because it was a good idea and it was heralded by the community and the press, and when there's no follow through, it seems like it's just a big waste of time."
The Law: Meth-Free Tennessee Act of 2005
More Problems: McCroskey's office has been under fire since last October
McCroskey said little when asked about the matter. However, she did say that she relied on information from the Knox County District Attorney General's Office. She said when a defendant is convicted the DA's Office gives her office a copy of the judgment that includes a section that asks whether the conviction is methamphetamine related.
Officials are supposed to check a "yes" or "no" box, and that the boxes aren't always checked. DA Randy Nichols agreed "that's more on me than on her."
However, the state statute does not require someone to check the boxes. It requires only that the criminal clerk turn over the information. The judgments, which are all personally signed by McCroskey, clearly note the conviction offense and clearly note "methamphetamine" on them.
Further, some of the judgments McCroskey's office turned over to the TBI did not have the boxes checked.
Nichols, though, said the problem could be corrected and any missing names can still be added to the registry.
Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Meth and Pharmaceutical Task Force, said the system has a "lot of moving parts," and didn't want to place the blame on anyone.
But, Farmer said he wasn't surprised that the registry has problems.
"To change the system to go from public awareness, education to a prohibitive purchasers list and then with all of those, there's only so much that we can process with the clerk, we know there may be some problems there," he said.
Still, he added that, overall, the registry has worked. Last year, he said, 463 people who were on the list were blocked a combined 1,600 times from buying pseudoephedrine.
The registry, created as part of the Meth-Free Tennessee Act of 2005, is connected to a system pharmacists use to track the sales of pseudoephedrine.
Pharmacists are required to check photo IDs of customers purchasing pseudoephedrine and match them with the database. The system then flags anyone on the registry or those who have reached the legal limits for buying pseudoephedrine without a prescription in Tennessee – currently 9 grams, or about three boxes of pills, in a 30-day period
"It is a little troubling that there (is) a list of individuals that have been convicted . . . that are not being added to the registry which would then immediately prevent us from being able to sell to them," said David Belew, a pharmacist and owner of Belew Drugs in North Knoxville.
Belew said he's "aggravated" because each year pharmacists are asked to provide more information about themselves and their customers, yet officials can't provide more accurate information to them.
"If we're being asked to do that, then I guess I would just ask that the people we report to would have to follow those same set of guidelines," he said.
That's not happening in Knox County.
Records show that the criminal court clerk's office has given the TBI only a fraction of the information required.
Only three of 26 people convicted in Knox County last year are on the registry and only four of the 30 convicted in 2012 are in the database. No one convicted in Knox County courts for methamphetamine-related crimes from mid-2008 through 2011 is listed.
From 2007 through mid-2008, when Martha Phillips' served as criminal court clerk, the courts convicted a combined 15 defendants. Only five of those names are on the registry.
State law says the criminal court clerk has to forward a judgment to the TBI within 45 days of a conviction. The TBI is then responsible for removing a name from the registry seven years after the date of the most recent conviction.
Burchett, who was a state senator at the time, was one of a number of officials who sponsored the Meth-Free Tennessee Act that created the registry.
"(It's) another tool in the box that you can use to combat some of these crimes," he said.
Long-time pharmacist and state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ride, said he was upset that the clerk's office has failed to update the registry.
"One assumes the individuals are going to comply with their job, and it could be negligence or it could be not doing it for other reasons," he said.
McNally, who also co-sponsored the 2005 bill, said the registry is "the next best thing than going to prescriptions-only," a move state lawmakers have discussed and something he endorses.
He added that as talks about pseudoephedrine continue during this year's General Assembly session "that might give us the opportunity to put criminal penalties if people don't send in the reports (that) they're required to the TBI."
Gov. Bill Haslam in January introduced the Tennessee Anti-Meth Production Act, which would lower the monthly limit of pseudoephedrine a customer could purchase to 2.4 grams, or about one box of pills, per month without a prescription.