Businesses in a unique position to help the fight
by J.J. Jensen
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo has seen a lot in his three decades in law enforcement but he’s currently facing what he considers the most destructive force confronting our country: the methamphetamine epidemic.
“In my 30 years in law enforcement, this is the worst drug I’ve ever seen,” he said in an unwavering voice, on a recent morning in a dim Sheriff’s Office conference room.
How problematic is it locally? In addition to the toll it takes on the body, brain and environment, meth, according to Elfo, is now connected to about half of all property crime in Whatcom County and nearly every incident of identity theft.
To combat the problem, Elfo and other local law enforcement officials are now calling on Whatcom County’s business community for help in stopping its production.
A video produced by the Sheriff’s Office and Bellingham Police Department, “Target: Methamphetamine,” has been airing recently on BTV10, and is aimed at helping business owners and employees spot potential meth manufacturers and users. Also, officers in recent months have been making rounds in different sections of the business community to help implement strategies that may aid in decreasing meth production here.
“There’s a general lack of awareness and education on this entire issue,” said Bellingham Chief of Police Randy Carroll. “I think the paramount message is that this drug doesn’t discriminate.”
Easy to make
Because meth can be easy to make, with its necessary products available in many stores, business owners and employees, law enforcement officials say, can play a role in fighting meth manufacturing.
“As an owner or manager of a store, you are in a special position,” Carroll said. “We need to work together to eliminate methamphetamine production.”
Businesses that have traditionally been victimized by the shoplifting of potential meth-making ingredients and equipment – or which can be in a great position to aid law enforcement – include grocery stores, agricultural supply stores, hardware stores, convenience stores and big-box retailers.
That’s because common products involved in meth-making include pseudoephedrine and ephedrine (cold tablets), engine starter, drain cleaner, lithium batteries and road flares; common equipment used in meth production includes large jugs, funnels, propane cylinders, gas cans and coffee filters.
The police department and Sheriff’s Office have been asking retailers to report descriptions of customers who purchase these products in large quantities and, when possible, take down license plate numbers.
Pam Christianson, owner of Blaine’s Pacific Building Center, said she and her employees have been practicing that strategy for several years.
A few years ago, a drug-enforcement agency dropped off at her business a poster that listed ingredients for making meth and an 800-number to report customers who were buying products in bulk and may have been using them to produce meth.
“I thought, ‘what will an 800-number get us in Blaine?'” Christianson said. “So I’d very casually go watch what car they got in, write down their license plate number and turn it over to the (local) police. If they bought it more than once, I’d let police know it was the second time in a week.”
After awhile, Christianson said she could tell who the meth-makers were.
“You get a general view of what someone who’s cooking meth looks like,” she said. “Their hands will have burns or their fingernails are blackened.”
Christianson said she’s aware of at least one meth arrest her reporting led to. Meanwhile, word got out in the community about her reporting strategy and she noticed fewer and fewer people fitting the typical meth-user description coming to her store to buy the common meth-lab products.
“We don’t make it a big secret we do this,” she said. “If you’re dumb enough to (make meth), plan on having the description of your car and your description passed on to the police.
“I don’t want people cooking it in my community or selling it in my community. I would do anything I could, if I thought somebody was dealing drugs or doing drugs, to stick my neck out and do something about it.”
Sudafed coming off the shelves
Other local businesses have also recently started taking steps to make sure they’re selling products to people who aren’t using them for illegal activities.
A store manager at the Meridian Haggen said Sudafed has been taken off the shelves and is now kept behind the counter. Before the move, during one inventory check on that product, he said, the store had lost around $700 worth of Sudafed, presumably to shoplifting.
At Costco, Sudafed has also been taken off shelves and is only available at the pharmacy, where only one box can be purchased at a time. To track who is purchasing Sudafed, and how often, the store has nonmembers fill out forms every time they buy it.
At Wal-Mart and several Brown & Cole stores, cameras have been installed to record who is making Sudafed purchases.
Like Blaine’s Christianson, Wal-Mart’s Nick Gonnella, a district loss-prevention supervisor, has also put up posters of meth-associated products that employees should keep a close eye on, and has held store meetings to talk about the importance of reporting potential meth dealers.
“Shoplifting has gone down recently and I think it’s because of the awareness we’ve implemented in that store,” Gonnella said. “We’ve seen a great reduction in the amount of people we’ve seen in our stores making suspicious purchases.”
Still, other problems are arising.
While Brown & Cole stores have taken measures to reduce the shoplifting of Sudafed, meth dealers and users are turning their attention to other crimes in the company’s stores, said Ken Barnes, a loss-prevention manager.
Shoplifters are now taking hundreds of pounds of meat to trade for the drug, while other criminals are counterfeiting payroll checks and cashing them at stores.
“The biggest impact is the loss that’s going on,” Barnes said. “It seems simple but if you lose $10 worth of product you have to sell 100 to 500 times that to make it up. It’s about profit at the bottom line.”
Because meth-lab cleanups can cost from several thousand dollars to more than $150,000, law enforcement officials have also been working with local property managers to help them identify possible signs of meth labs in rental properties. Sue Stremler, associate director of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, said she hasn’t heard of any local rental properties being busted for labs but acknowledged many property managers are now aware of that possibility.
Carroll said it’s possible officers will be working with more businesses in the future. For example, he said, he and Elfo may collaborate with pawn shops to keep a central database of all items pawned and who is bringing them in. A customer who is continually bringing in CDs could be connected to car prowls, a crime many meth users rely on for drug money.
Meth-lab busts in Whatcom County have increased from nine in 2000 to more than 50 last year, and Elfo said the community can expect more awareness campaigns and increased enforcement.
“We’re really playing catch-up,” he said. “This problem has gone on too long. It’s spiraling out of control and we’re going to rein it in.”
MORE: click HERE for information on how to spot a meth lab in your neighborhood.