Suspects of Convenience

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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.

* Most of the targeted stores had little or no Mini Thin-type products in stock when the undercover cops first approached them.

* The AG's case presentation to the grand jury was compromised by key omissions and misstatements by police witnesses.

* Many targeted stores are owned by foreign-born people of Middle Eastern descent, whose command of English in some instances is poor. That led to contentions that some defendants didn't know what the narcs meant when they referred to "cooking dope" or "making drugs."

"Did you have any difficulty communicating with [any] . . . of the approximately 16 [arrestees] that you interviewed?" a defense attorney asked Phoenix detective Frank Pina in February. "Oh, yes," Pina replied.

Despite the dismissal--at least temporarily--of the criminal charges, the government continues to attack the Mini Thins sellers with the ferocity it usually reserves for mobsters and child molesters. The store owners are being assailed from every legal angle--criminal, civil, licensing and, potentially, immigration.

State forfeiture proceedings against 16 of the convenience stores and their owners are ongoing. It's a devastating mechanism by which the government may collect sums of money from an accused "racketeer"--and, sometimes, to push the accused into financial ruin.

Whatever happens legally from here, the ramifications to those ensnared by the sting have been staggering: Life savings have vanished, dreams have been shattered. Perhaps worst, at least six of the accused who aren't U.S. citizens may face deportation to Iraq if they're convicted of a felony.

The Drug
Methamphetamine cooks are resourceful. When the drug warriors shut one door, the dopers invariably open another.

Until the late 1980s, cooks could buy ephedrine legally from chemical-manufacturing firms, then easily convert it into meth. The feds caught on, and Congress in 1988 passed a law that regulated bulk ephedrine sales.

The strong pharmaceutical lobby that year won a key exemption for over-the-counter ephedrine-based products--Sudafed and Actifed are among the most well-known--for which Congress had considered requiring prescriptions.

A DEA white paper titled Methamphetamine Precursor Chemical Control in the 1990s describes how meth traffickers switched to pseudoephedrine after the feds imposed controls on the import, export and distribution of bulk ephedrine powder.

Ephedrine pills and capsules still could be found in large quantities through mail-order distributors who sold the drugs as bronchodilators, energy boosters and diet aids.

In April 1994, the distribution of pure ephedrine tabs and capsules became subject to federal reporting and recordkeeping requirements. That led cooks to turn to over-the-counter cold medicines, many of which contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine--the building blocks of methamphetamine.

The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 attempted to cut off easy access to meth precursor products. It was the first law to limit sale of over-the-counter drugs, and it stemmed from the vast increase in sales of the pills by the large retailers.

Among other requirements, the new law limited an over-the-counter customer per transaction to no more than three grams of ephedrine in a bottle, and to sell no more than 24 grams of ephedrine in a sealed pack.

The new law's focus, a sheriff's detective explained last February in an interview with defense attorneys, is on the bottles, not the packs.

"They didn't feel that meth cooks would go through the problems of busting up the blister packs," said Jeff Eccles, leader of a county methamphetamine task force. "What they forgot is that meth cooks are up for 14 days straight."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin