NPR blogger: CVS stores were favorites of meth-cooking “smurfers”

by Anne Zieger on October 18, 2010

smurfMaybe it’s just old age, but I remember when a smurf was just an obnoxious animated character without any redeeming value whatsoever.

Apparently, those days are long gone. Those who run about buying OTC decongestants for use in cooking up methamphetamine are known as “smurfers.” And according to NPR blogger Scott Hensley, until recently they looooved CVS drugstore chain outlets.

According to the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, CVS was a smurfer’s dream, funneling (however inadvertently) “large amount of pseudoephedrine”  to bad guys in Southern California. So high was the volume at which smurfers, uh, smurfed OTC cold meds from CVS that it “led directly to an increase in methamphetamine production in California,” officials said. (Man, that’s got to have been one heck of a flow to help light up all of California.)

How could this happen?  Well, certainly CVS didn’t decide to go into the meth business. And federal law prohibits any person from buying more than 3.6 grams per day of pseudoephedrine per day, a rule retailers are supposed to enforce by ID-checking, log books and the like.

But  CVS seems to have dropped the ball when it switched from old-fashioned human vigilance and paper to computer tracking.  Apparently, the chain simply relied too heavily on a faulty IT system designed to track excessive purchases of meds that could be use for meth manufacture.  Even if store employees felt someone was coming in too often, they weren’t allowed to stop the sales.

In case you’re worried about CVS, it got off light, with a $75 million fine, along with giving up $2.5 million in profits. For a company with a $42.4 billion market cap, that doesn’t count as a scratch. CEO Thomas Ryan said the whole episode was a breach of the company’s unbelievably high oversight standards, and left it at that.

I say, anytime you substitute technology for human judgment completely, you’re on the verge of some kind of disaster, especially where health behavior is concerned.  So, what IT crisis is lurking in your organization right now, and who needs to be given enough authority to fix it?

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