Suspects of Convenience

The sting targeted stores selling over-the-counter medicines that could be cooked into meth. But the cops warned major retailers to stop the sales while throwing the book at mom-and-pop shops, most of which are owned by Arab immigrants.

Actually, the narcs hadn't used the words "methamphetamine" or "meth" in secretly recorded discussions at the stores. And many sales had been completed normally, cash register, taxes and all. But that evidence wouldn't become known for months.

Police said the nine-month sting--the first of its kind in Arizona--came from a tip that independently owned convenience stores had become a prime source for meth cooks needing the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine in Mini Thins and other such drugs.

"The major stores have figured out this stuff isn't for them," Granieri told the Republic.

Again, the detective was off-base: The super-pharmacies still sell many over-the-counter medications that contain meth precursors. What they'd stopped doing was selling so much to one customer.

And Granieri didn't say the big stores--after years of being the main source for meth cooks--had stopped bulk sales at the friendly urging of law enforcement. Finally, the cop didn't volunteer that the mom-and-pop stores hadn't been afforded that same warning.

Said Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, "These stores knowingly sold caseloads of the chemicals used to make meth."

Amir and Fay Alyas had sold nowhere near "caseloads." They were charged with selling $382 worth of Mini Two-Way Action, Actifed and Sudafed to the cops over a two-month period.

Other defendants, however, had sold many cases of meth precursor products to the cops. The evidence suggests that several of those charged--especially some younger store clerks--understood perfectly they were selling to avowed meth cooks. (One shop owner--the only American-born of the accused owners--asked the narcs to provide him meth after they cooked. Another clerk promised to provide the narcs up to 200 cases of Mini Thins. Yet another asked the cops how they made the meth.)

At first blush, it's difficult to quarrel with an operation aimed at stanching the production and near-epidemic use of methamphetamine. But a closer look reveals a law enforcement operation with a lot of flash, a little substance and, in some cases--including the Alyases'--creation of unwitting strawmen.

More tangibly, two Superior Court judges assigned to hear the criminal cases ruled recently that the Mini Thins defendants committed no crimes under Arizona law. The judges cited a law that bars prosecution of "persons who sell any non-narcotic substance that under [federal law] may be sold over the counter without a prescription."

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products fit precisely into that category, as do the shopkeepers and clerks who sold Mini Thins to the cops.

The judges' momentous rulings led Arizona assistant attorney general Billie Rosen earlier this month to seek dismissal of all criminal charges against the accused.

Rosen says she "never considered that the exemption applied in this type of situation." That's why she'd originally taken the cases to state court, rather than send them to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution under federal law, which contains no such exemption.

Now, Rosen has asked the feds to prosecute the Mini Thins sellers. Federal prosecutors haven't said whether they will.

"I want these cases to be litigated on their merits," Rosen tells New Times. "The vast majority of the cases were in my mind pretty egregious. The police were asked to turn a faucet off in this community, and that faucet was one of the sources for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine that went into the making of methamphetamine. The people at the stores aren't using the dope and they're not selling the dope, but the fact of the matter is they've contributed to the problem."

The estimated cost of the Mini Thins sting, according to law enforcement sources, already is more than $1 million.

Had the drug warriors bothered to distribute a few extra copies of a warning letter that was sent to big retailers, they could have saved taxpayer money and spared some good people a ton of grief.

In late 1996, sheriff's methamphetamine task force members alerted officials of large local stores that over-the-counter cold medications are being used to produce methamphetamine. A letter asked the big retailers to report anyone trying to buy or steal large amounts of over-the-counter cold remedies.

The notice apparently worked: A detective who leads the task force said in February that he stopped seeing as much of a Wal-Mart cold medicine called Walfed at meth-lab busts, and started seeing more Mini Thins.

But the sheriff's detective said the Mini Thins undercover team asked him not to send the informational letter to the "mom-and-pop" convenience stores because it could compromise their ongoing sting.

"If we get notice like big stores, honest to God, we would do what the big stores did," says E-Z Stop's Fay Alyas. "If we get notice, then sell lots of medicine to one guy, we should be in trouble. If we know it is bad to sell too much cold medicine, I tell him to get out."

Prosecutor Rosen doesn't buy that, saying that the wholesale distributors of the cold medicines in several instances sent warning letters to their customers, and that media coverage of cold medicines' relationship to methamphetamine production has been extensive.

Other troubling aspects of the Mini Thins sting also have emerged:
* The police had only scant information that any Mini Thins defendant previously had sold a large amount of the pills to known meth cooks. And investigators have presented no evidence that any defendant sold pills in excess to anyone (other than the narcs themselves) who had proclaimed they were going to cook drugs with them.

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