Doubts raised on pill-shopper watchdog

By Andrew Laxon

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Doubts have been raised over plans for a national computer watchdog, which could stop gangs buying the raw ingredients of P from pharmacies.

Gangs frequently use "pill shoppers" who go from one pharmacy to the next, buying pseudoephedrine-based cold tablets, which are turned into methamphetamine.

The shoppers can buy four packets for about $100 and sell them for about $300 to the gangs, who then extract the pseudoephedrine to make up to $4000 worth of P.

Police and Customs have urged the Government to adopt a national computer network that would alert them to suspicious pseudoephedrine sales as they happen.

A similar system in Queensland has more than halved the number of P labs there from 210 to 95 in three years.

Last year, a report by the National Drug Intelligence Bureau said New Zealand had wasted the opportunity to tackle the problem.

"Despite almost a decade of discussion between police and pharmacy there is still no consistent national initiative to identify, prevent or reduce pill shopping in New Zealand."

But other agencies, including the Ministry of Health and the Pharmacy Guild, have raised questions about the cost and effectiveness of the monitoring plan.

Pharmacy Guild chief executive Annabel Young said her members were broadly in favour of the idea but most had tightened up on sales of pseudoephedrine-based products already.

It would cost a lot to make sure that all pharmacies had broadband internet links and that police had the resources to respond quickly to suspicious sales - especially if pharmacists felt they were in danger.

She suspected P manufacturers were changing tactics anyway, as they saw the chance to make more money quickly by importing pseudoephedrine in bulk from China.

The ministry's national drug policy team leader Chris Laurenson said ministers were studying the proposal but had not yet made a decision.

As well as cost and privacy issues - shoppers would probably need to produce photographic ID such as a driver's licence to buy the medication - the Government had to be careful that a crackdown did not create unintended consequences, such as more burglaries of pharmacies.

Anti-methamphetamine campaigner Mike Sabin predicted the plan was unlikely to work in the long run because gangs would simply respond by hiring more pill shop-pers.

"The pseudo[ephedrine] is still being sold, it's just that instead of 10 people out there, you've now got 100 people shopping for the same thing," he said.

- NZ Herald

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