Originally created 05/10/04

Retailers watch for suspicious customers



Facing a growing methamphetamine problem, South Carolina authorities are turning to retailers that sell the common ingredients of the illegal stimulant in hopes of cutting off the supply chain.

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said last week that he would like to see state law enforcement officials work with the retail community in a partnership based on a successful "meth watch" program instituted two years ago in Kansas.

According to officials with the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, stores participating in meth watch keep close tabs on the "precursor products" used to make methamphetamine, including pseudoephedrine, engine starter, drain cleaner, matches, rock salt and lithium batteries. Clerks are trained to watch for suspicious purchases of a combination of products, and while not confronting the buyer, supply as much information as they can to law enforcement.

Clerks generally fill out a standard law enforcement form after suspicious purchases, including a description of the buyer, whether the purchase was charged or paid for with cash, and how often the customer has been in the store.

"It's really a partnership between the retailers and law enforcement," said Elizabeth Assey, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which is working to institute the program in 10 states, including South Carolina and Georgia. "No one's asking these clerks to put themselves on the front lines, but they can still get some pretty good descriptions."

In the South Carolina program, Mr. McMaster said, "a security guard might follow them out and get their license number if they buy 50 pounds of rock salt and 40 gallons of drain cleaner. If people are aware of what's going on and can read those signals, it would help law enforcement."

In what could be a first step toward implementing such a program, representatives of some of the largest retail chains in the state were among those attending the attorney general's Meth Summit in Columbia last week. Several talked about the voluntary measures their stores already have in place.

At Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer, pseudoephedrine purchases are limited to three packages per visit, according to Ben Thankachan, the chain's director of pharmacy professional services and government relations.

Wal-Mart has even conducted sting operations with the DEA, grouping several meth ingredients together in aisle displays and monitoring their purchases, Mr. Thankachan said.

The store is cautious setting up such operations, Mr. Thankachan said.

"We make sure we pick and choose where we do that," he said.

Mr. McMaster and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the makers of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, seem optimistic that South Carolina could soon become another meth-watch state, complete with cash register and aisle display signs warning would-be meth makers.

Noting that meth watch has gained the endorsement of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Ms. Assey said the program is gaining momentum.

"Every state is going to have to tackle this problem somehow," she said. "We really think the meth watch program at the retail level is the key to states curbing methamphetamine use."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephen.gurr@augustachronicle.com.