Did CVS Buy Its Way Out of a Meth Indictment? [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker

[Editor's Note: Clarence Walker is a veteran Houston-based journalist who writes on criminal justice issues and who dearly wishes this piece was called "CVS in the Hood." He wishes all readers a Happy New Year! Walker can be reached at cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.]

Drug agents across the land pursue their endless war against methamphetamine with relentless vigor, busting tweakers daily and breathlessly trumpeting the seizure of yet another "meth lab," which these days often consists of no more than a couple of soda pop bottles and a few chemicals available from your general store. Yet in the relentless campaign against meth and its manufacturers, it seems some are more equal than others.

CVS, the largest operator of pharmacies in the United States, confessed back in October that it knowingly allowed crystal meth manufacturers to illegally buy large amounts of pseudoephedrine (PSE), an active ingredient used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. To avoid criminal prosecution, CVS officials agreed to pay the federal government a $75 million fine for narcotics violations, the largest cash money penalty in the 40-year history of the Controlled Substances Act.

Although pseudoephedrine is a common ingredient in over the counter cold medications and is legal to purchase from drug stores in Canada and the US, because it can also be used to make methamphetamine, it is illegal for pharmacies to sell a person more than 3 1/2 grams of PSE per day. But DEA and state narcotic officers eventually learned that meth cooks were able to get around the law by employing "smurfs" -- people working with meth cooks who make repeated legal purchases of PSE at numerous different pharmacies.

As early as 2007, dealers targeted CVS, and according to the DEA, the top CVS officials were warned by employees of the illegal violations. DEA reported that the pharmacy's head honchos ignored the warnings and demanded the workers continue selling the large amounts of PSE in California and Nevada.

Authorities say CVS in effect assisted meth cookers by failing to provide adequate safeguards to monitor the legal amount of PSE that customers could buy. DEA said the violations occurred not only in California and Nevada, but in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and 23 other states currently under investigation. Between September 2007 and November 2008, CVS's illegal practice of overselling PSE products caused the DEA to tag them as the largest suppliers of pseudoephedrine to meth traffickers in Southern California.

US Assistant Attorney Shana Mintz said, "Rather than choosing to over-comply with the law like their competitors did, they knowingly under-complied with the law."

Federal agents began investigating CVS in 2008 after pseudoephedrine seized at Southern California meth labs was traced back to the pharmacy chain. News media stories reported that CVS installed an automated system called Meth Tracker to track individual sales but that the mechanism didn't stop multiple same-day purchases.

Around Los Angeles, smurfs would hit CVS locations and raid the shelves of PSE products and cough and cold medicine tablets. Prosecutors said that in LA County alone over a 10-month period in 2008, sales of pseudoephedrine products such as Contac, Sudafed, Dimetapp and Chlor-Trimeton increased more than 150% over the same period in 2007.

"CVS knew it had a duty to prevent methamphetamine trafficking, but failed to take steps to control the sale of a regulated drug used by meth traffickers as an essential ingredient for their poisonous stew," said US Attorney Andre Birotte in a statement after the settlement. "This case shows what happens when companies fail to follow their ethical and legal responsibilities," he added.

"This historic settlement underscores DEA's commitment to protect the public's health and safety against the scourge of methamphetamine," said Michele Leonhart, the acting administrator of the DEA, in a statement.  "CVS's flagrant violation of the law resulted in the company becoming a direct link in the meth suppy chain."

While the feds were busy patting themselves on the back, CVS was busy absolving itself. In a statement, CVS Chairman and CEO Thomas Ryan said, "We have resolved this issue which resulted from a breakdown in CVS/pharmacy's normally high management and oversight standards."  The lapse, Ryan said, "was an unacceptable breach of the company's policies and was totally inconsistent with our values."

Small-time meth cooks are routinely sent to prison for years for "drug manufacturing," and people who help them out by buying small amounts of PSE go up the river for conspiracy, but not corporate criminals like CVS. Did the millions CVS paid the government keep company leaders from being indicted on drug charges?

During the DEA investigation of the CVS pharmacies, over 50 people were charged with possession with intent to manufacture methamphetamine for purchasing the PSE products they bought illegally from CVS stores. Each defendant faces prison time, while CVS officials who knowingly allowed the illegal purchase of the drugs get off scot free by paying millions that eventually will be recouped.

The arrest of the CVS smurfs sparked a heated debate about equal justice and disparities in the treatment of small-time smurfs and big-time corporate entities. "It doesn't seem fair to let those like CVS that ignored the law and sold massive amounts of an ingredient to make that poison get away with just a fine. Yes, it's a hefty one, but they'll probably just raise prices to offset it," said Dean Becker, the Houston-based host of KPFT radio.

"As always, the powers that be are utilizing fear and loathing to continue their eternal war. CVS and all the corporations that are subject to the oversight of the DEA are pawns in the game of fear," said Becker. "Why are people using CVS to make speed?"

Attorney Diane Bass says her client has been punished disproportionately while corporate decision-makers go free.
No one is more infuriated with the disparity in treatments of drug offenders, particularly in the CVS case, than California attorney Diane Bass.  Based in Laguna Beach, California, Bass represents one of the female defendants charged in federal court with possession with intent to manufacture the PSE drugs purchased from CVS.

"If this was any other drug case, CVS would be the 'source' of the drugs the government would be most interested in prosecuting, and CVS would receive the longest sentence," she told the Chronicle. "Here, CVS paid a fine of $75 million and walked away without facing criminal prosecution while the small players like my client who are meth addicts trying to earn a few bucks to buy their drugs are facing excessively long prison sentences. This isn't fair. It's outrageous!" Bass said.

"In my client's case, she needed the money to buy her medication for her illness. She's on SSI and had no money to pay for her medicine," the defense attorney explained. "These are certainly not the people that Congress intended to punish when it promulgated the PSE sentencing guidelines. I believe they intended to punish those who actually manufactured methamphetamine -- those whom my client sold the PSE cold medicine to."

Bass complained the disparity in treatment in this case is so unfair she will fight tooth-and-nail for her client to show how corporations break the law an only pay a fine, while the small fry goes to prison.

While corporate behemoths like CVS can buy their way out of trouble, that's not necessarily the case for Ma-and-Pa operations, like that of Oklahoma pharmacist Haskell Lee Evans Jr., 68, a member of the State Board of Health, who was recently indicted for "recklessly" selling pseudoephedrine to make crystal meth -- the same act committed by CVS.

Evans, the owner of Haskell's Prescription Shop in Lawton, Oklahoma, allegedly sold pseudoephedrine to undercover agents with valid licenses who had not exceeded the limit of purchase. The PSE sales were considered "reckless" on one count because the agents arrived in the same vehicle to do a purchase. Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmonson is aiming to convict Evans on all accounts and ask a judge to dump him in prison for up to 43 years. Supporters of Haskell Evans are urging pharmacists to join a Facebook page called Pharmacists and Citizens in support of Haskell Evans.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the year-end holiday season, attorney Diane Bass reflected on the year ahead as she prepared to battle the federal government. She intends to ask the court to lessen her client's penalty due to the improper dispensing of the PSE drugs by CVS to the defendant.

"The federal sentencing guidelines in my client's case calls for a sentence around 188 months due to the fact she and her co-defendants purchased several thousand milligrams of pseudoephedrine from CVS," she said. "I have requested that the US attorney recommend a variance or departure based on the fact except for CVS' illegal sales to customers of more than 3.6 grams per day or 9 grams per month, my client never would have been able to purchase the amount she purchased. I believe she should only be sentenced as if she had purchased 9 grams per month which would result in a 60 month variance. Hopefully, since my client suffers from serious medical conditions and has had a tragic life, the court will grant a further down departure in sentencing."

A poor, sick, drug addicted woman's lawyer fights to get her sentence reduced to only 10 years for buying too much of a legal, over-the-counter medicinal product, while CVS gets off the hook by paying millions and has the opportunity to make millions more by staying in business. Disparate justice isn't just about race in America, it's also about class.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

We've Heard This Song Before

A street kid gets arrested,

Gonna do some time.

He'll get out three yeasrs from now

Just to commit more crime.

A businessman is caught

With 24 kilos

He's out on bail and out of jail and 

That's the way it goes.

 

--Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

We've Heard This Song Before

A street kid gets arrested,

Gonna do some time.

He'll get out three years from now 

Just to commit more crime.

A businessman is caught,

With 24 kilos.

He's out on bail and out of jail

And that's the way it goes.

 

--Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Arrest the corporate execs

Arrest the corporate execs and the store managers because they are just as guilty as those whom purchased the LEGAL drugs.  They are criminals and it's a shame that they can just get away with this kind of crap!  The criminals pay to murder and the murderer goes to prison...

supply chain

CVS and not " drug prohibition " is surely to blame for supplies of illegal meth. CVS and not " drug prohibition " is the reason why meth is being sold to teenagers . CVS and not " drug prohibition " is why we have people using " controlled " substances. CVS encourages people to cook meth because they don`t sell hard liquor. CVS could`ve used that fine $$$ to sue the DEA and the Government for being such blatant Jack`asses.

Enough Already!!!

Just legalize everything! What do you care about most? That you will always have a good-paying job or that someone, somewhere might be getting high? The drug war is nothing but a sick, sad joke!

CVS

It wasn't even clear that what CVS did was illegal, because it was based on a judgment call that was theirs to make.

In a sane society,

drugs would be treated like any other commodity, produced and sold by licensed, regulated and taxed businesses, and once bought, would become the property and the responsibility of the consumer.  In a sane society, speed freaks would have the same right to safe access as other drug users, and the leaders of the most powerful nation on the planet would have more important things to do than decide how many cold tablets each individual may purchase.  

Even the rich

are targets now 75 million Dollars now that's a heavy duty chunk o change ? wonder who gets the Dough the DEA

to pad their grandiose stings , the poor little man in this has no chance at all  . Mr Limbaugh would surely be in prison today except he had enough money to get a pass ,but if he were just one of us ! daylight would not be in his future

just prison walls. The only hope for our world too survive is too end the War on people this is no Drug war , It's a crime against the people of earth the Lies are miles thick and decades deep.

If God could watch it would surely cry

Pyridine Molecules

Really CVS Pharmacy is the world's best pharmacy.

StopTheDrugWar is typically

StopTheDrugWar is typically in favor of legislation that reflects an open view regarding drug laws, however, in this case they are flaunting hypocrisy. The law that regulates pseudoephedrine sales is outright unjust and is one more way the DEA can fund it's drug war. If the DEA was SO concerned with abominating methamphetamine production, they would simply schedule pseudoephedrine as a prescription-only medication. Instead the DEA forms an arbitrary law that requires pharmacies to obtain information about the middlemen involved in drug trafficking, gives itself access to this information "legally," then demands fines from pharmacies who don't follow the law. It is now the fines from the pharmacies that fund the never-ending drug war. How convenient. If pseudoephedrine were prescription-only, nobody would be held responsible for drug trafficking other than the doctors prescribing it and the pharmacies selling it.

statistics

What in the world would make anyone think that taking pseudoehedrine off of store shelves would do anything except change the relative positions and locations of some of the players? Oregon did move pseudoephedrine to schedule 3 a number of years ago, so you can't buy it in Oregon without a prescription. State authorities claim that it worked using the number of meth labs busted dropping from the several hundreds to 4 if I recall correctly. Like the adjustment to smurfing, any drug dealer worth his salt is going to take the path of least resistance.

In 1998 Oregon had 7390 in "treatment for amphetamines. It seems SAMHSA doesn't break out the use of meth from other amphetimines like Adderall.

http://wwwdasis.samhsa.gov/webt/quicklink/or98.htm

In 2008 Oregon had 7330 inthe same category.

http://wwwdasis.samhsa.gov/webt/quicklink/or08.htm

It can hardly be called a rousing elimination of methamphetimine use.

Pharmacists are health professionals, not police

Pharmacists spend at least 6 years in school learning to take care of patients.  They are not police.  Pharmacists are already required to record the license and signature of the patients buying the pseudoephedrine (which causes a lot of extra time, paper work and cost for mom & pop pharmacies).  Why doesn't the DEA just make copies of these lists and use them to go after the real meth manufacturers, instead of punishing those stuck between a rock and a hard place?  Pharmacists and their staff have enough to take care of (like getting the right drug to the right patient while checking the dose, frequency, potential drug interactions, insurance issues, the drivethru, the person wanting to buy milk at the cash register, potential robbers, etc.) to also have to worry about smurfs buying a couple of boxes of pseudoephedrine.  In the CVS case, it sounds as if the pharmacists and technicians, even with which all they have to contend, did warn CVS administration.  Their reward was to have the added pressure of "sell it anyway if you want to keep your job."  In the case of the innocent Oklahoma pharmacist, owner of one little store for > 30 years, Mr. Haskell Evans truly did nothing illegal; he failed to refuse to sell 3 people arriving in the same car (which he didn't see from the back of the store while working), that they couldn't buy legal amounts of Sudafed with legal licenses and information??!!  Unfortunately, he was the little guy and Att General Drew Edmonson needed some political gain from appearing "tough on drugs" in Oklahoma.  Unfortunately, it is about who has the most money / political power and not about what's right and wrong.  Thank you, Mr. Walker for writing this article.

Pharmacists are not police

 

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Pharmacists spend at least 6 years in school learning to take care of patients.  They are not police.  Pharmacists are already required to record the license and signature of the patients buying the pseudoephedrine (which causes a lot of extra time, paper work and cost for mom & pop pharmacies).  Why doesn't the DEA just make copies of these lists and use them to go after the real meth manufacturers, instead of punishing those stuck between a rock and a hard place?  Pharmacists and their staff have enough to take care of (like getting the right drug to the right patient while checking the dose, frequency, potential drug interactions, insurance issues, the drivethru, the person wanting to buy milk at the cash register, potential robbers, etc.) to also have to worry about smurfs buying a couple of boxes of pseudoephedrine.  In the CVS case, it sounds as if the pharmacists and technicians, even with which all they have to contend, did warn CVS administration.  Their reward was to have the added pressure of "sell it anyway if you want to keep your job."  In the case of the innocent Oklahoma pharmacist, owner of one little store for > 30 years, Mr. Haskell Evans truly did nothing illegal; he failed to refuse to sell 3 people arriving in the same car (which he didn't see from the back of the store while working), that they couldn't buy legal amounts of Sudafed with legal licenses and information??!!  Unfortunately, he was the little guy and Att General Drew Edmonson needed some political gain from appearing "tough on drugs" in Oklahoma.  Unfortunately, it is about who has the most money / political power and not about what's right and wrong.  Thank you, Mr. Walker for writing this article.

Repeating history in the cannabis suppression racket

Neither the writer nor the commentators here nor anyone else has claimed that "Sudafed" has any virtues as a means of inspiration or creativity, has produced superior music or carpentry or anything. It is surely the most perfect example of (intended or unintended?) consequences of Drug War.  Drone planes flew over tracking heat sources to crack down on growhouses where high-THC green cannabis was growing, and the guys who were in it for the money switched to EASIER-TO-HIDE meth labs.

Been here before.  1980's-- high quality brown cannabis from Colombia (Remember "Got dat Bo"?) was suppressed, US planes spraying Paraquat to poison users.  Guess what-- the growers who were in it for the money switched to cocaine.

1970's-- Afghanistan raised top-grade cannabis made into rich tasty black hashish.  US suppressed that crop, and today Afghanistan makes 90% of world's heroin.  "When will they ever learn?"

Yeah well it must be

Yeah well it must be remembered that the restriction on meth precursors is tied into the Patriot Act!

Equal Justice for All?

I am the attorney who was interviewed in this article and I am actually working very closely with my co-counsel in this case to get our clients a sentence much shorter than 10 years. I believe that my client has been punished enough. She has suffered a stroke while in custody awaiting the resolution of this case. The Assistant US Attorney will not agree to release her on bond even though she has no prior criminal record while corporate execs who turned their back on this broad sweeping, incessant violation of the law walk free. We need to speak out on this outrageous disparity of treatment. 

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