CNHI News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY ? U.S. attorneys Thursday announced a $2 million settlement with Walgreens Pharmacy concerning a law to curb methamphetamine production.

Under the settlement, the store will undertake compliance measures and cash penalties responding to civil claims it sold some individuals more than the legal limit of 9 grams of pseudoephedrine per month.

Robert McCampbell, U.S. attorney for Oklahoma's western district, said the settlement showed Oklahoma's pseudoephedrine laws are more than paperwork requirements.

"They make Oklahoma safer," McCampbell said. "Our message today is simple: if you want to sell pseudoephedrine in Oklahoma, you'd better follow every rule and regulation there is, because all of us in law enforcement are focused on meth."

After Enid police found store brand Walgreens cold medicine at the site of a meth lab bust, undercover officers managed to buy illegal amounts of the medicine from stores, McCampbell said.

Jason Priest, an Enid police investigator, examined written records of pseudoephedrine sales in every pharmacy in Enid, said Richard West, police chief.

The work led to a Jan. 27 raid that produced 19 arrests and 93 felony charges. A June 23 raid yielded 25 arrest warrants and 128 criminal charges, West said.

Police could have avoided much of the work, "had Walgreens controlled the sale of pseudoephedrine in the same manner that all the other pharmacies had," he said.

Larry Derryberry, Oklahoma legal counsel for Walgreens, applauded the work of Enid police but said Walgreens was "victimized by the meth cooks."

Walgreens is the only 24-hour store in Enid and serves a high volume of customers, Derryberry said.

At issue is the ease of producing illegal methamphetamine from legal medicine.

"The chemical composition is only one atom different from methamphetamine, the number one drug problem in our state," McCampbell said.

A pseudoephedrine molecule can be cooked into methamphetamine by removing a hydroxyl group and adding a hydrogen atom in its place, making the difference between cold medicine and narcotics a matter of a single oxygen atom.

Blame game

Walgreens Pharmacy, which operates about 65 stores in Oklahoma, did not admit to wrongdoing in the settlement, which was civil rather than criminal.

But law enforcement agents contended there was evidence clerks ignored the law and received companywide policies that were negligent toward the drug.

"The facts show that Walgreens was careless," McCampbell said.

Scott Rowland of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs divided blame between clerks and management at the store. He said store employees approached the law casually, but company policies were not in line with the law's aim.

"Because of the corporate misbehavior of Walgreens, there were meth labs operated in the state of Oklahoma with all of the accompanying carnage that otherwise wouldn't have been," Rowland said.

He said a Walgreens employee in Tulsa sold more than the legal limit of pseudoephedrine to an undercover officer after agreeing to wait until a uniformed officer left the store.

When the stores failed to comply with the law after negotiations began on the settlement, Rowland said, he was "terribly displeased" and told an attorney for the stores he might "shred" the agreement.

But changes at some Walgreens stores came before the settlement was finalized.

At the chain's Enid location, "They are working very diligently to correct it," West said.

National bill

As Rowland, McCampbell and others announced the settlement with Walgreens, a U.S. Senate committee removed from a federal anti-meth bill a clause that could have weakened Oklahoma's law.

Gov. Brad Henry welcomed the news after writing a key senator to urge defeat of the federal preemption clause, which would have stricken down state laws and replaced them at the federal level.

"I welcome a federal law to combat the manufacture of this deadly drug, but it should not come at the expense of weakening state efforts," Henry said.

Rowland said Oklahoma's law is a "highly effective weapon" that "sets the standard" for other states and the federal government.

"We don't need them tinkering with our law," Rowland said before senators struck the language in question.

He said the U.S. Combat Meth Act of 2005 may end up weaker than efforts in Oklahoma and the eight states that have followed suit, due to special interests.

Rowland said when Oklahoma legislators passed the state's law, "The pharmaceutical companies were shocked that they didn't wield more influence in Oklahoma."

Luke Engan is CNHI Oklahoma reporter.

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