News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 3, 2009

Wabash Valley woman didn’t realize second cold medicine purchase violated drug laws

By Lisa Trigg

CLINTON — When Sally Harpold bought cold medicine for her family back in March, she never dreamed that four months later she would end up in handcuffs.

Now, Harpold is trying to clear her name of criminal charges, and she is speaking out in hopes that a law will change so others won’t endure the same embarrassment she still is facing.

“This is a very traumatic experience,” Harpold said.

Harpold is a grandmother of triplets who bought one box of Zyrtec-D cold medicine for her husband at a Rockville pharmacy. Less than seven days later, she bought a box of Mucinex-D cold medicine for her adult daughter at a Clinton pharmacy, thereby purchasing 3.6 grams total of pseudoephedrine in a week’s time.

Those two purchases put her in violation of Indiana law 35-48-4-14.7, which restricts the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, or PSE, products to no more than 3.0 grams within any seven-day period.

When the police came knocking at the door of Harpold’s Parke County residence on July 30, she was arrested on a Vermillion County warrant for a class-C misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. But through a deferral program offered by Vermillion County Prosecutor Nina Alexander, the charge could be wiped from Harpold’s record by mid-September.

Harpold’s story is one that concerns some law-abiding citizens who fear that innocent people will get mistakenly caught in the net of meth abuse roundups.

But the flip side of the story comes from the law enforcement arena, which is battling a resurgence in methamphetamine production in the Wabash Valley.

As the 12th-smallest county in the state, Vermillion County ranked as the state’s fifth-largest producer of methamphetamine just a few years ago.

“I don’t want to go there again,” Alexander told the Tribune-Star, recalling how the manufacture and abuse of methamphetamine ravaged the tiny county and its families.

While the law was written with the intent of stopping people from purchasing large quantities of drugs to make methamphetamine, the law does not say the purchase must be made with the intent to make meth.

“The law does not make this distinction,” Alexander said.

If the law said “with intent to manufacture methamphetamine,” no one could be arrested until it was proven that the drug actually was used to make meth, the prosecutor said.

And that certainly wasn’t the intent of the law, either. It was written to limit access to the key ingredient in meth — pseudoephedrine — and thereby to stop the clandestine “mom and pop” meth labs that were cooking drugs throughout the area.

Just as with any law, the public has the responsibility to know what is legal and what is not, and ignorance of the law is no excuse, the prosecutor said.

“I’m simply enforcing the law as it was written,” Alexander said.

Pharmacies post “Meth Watch” signs, alerting customers that their purchases of drugs containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are being monitored. Pharmacies also are required to submit a list of purchase records to police, who then examine the lists for violations of the law.

It is up to customers to pay attention to their purchase amounts, and to check medication labels, Alexander said.

“If you take these products, you ought to know what’s in them,” she said.

While many people know that Sudafed, Actifed and Claritin-D contain pseudoephedrine, there are many more over-the-counter medications that also contain the key meth ingredient.

Ron Vencel, a pharmacist with JR Pharmacies in Terre Haute, said consumers should check all drug labels, and notes that any drug that has a “D” after it, for “decongestant,” has a likelihood of containing pseudoephedrine, or PSE.

Vencel has worked with area police to help curb the sale of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine to people buying it as a meth ingredient, and he offered insight into some of the purchasers.

As authorities and retailers have limited the sale of PSE, some meth-makers have resorted to asking their relatives and friends, who are unaware of the intended use of the product, to go buy the cold medicine. That has put some innocent people unwittingly into the cycle of meth production. And a buyer may call five or six different people to go buy the cold medicine, thereby circumventing the law.

Harpold, who is employed at the Rockville Correctional Facility for women, feels her reputation has been damaged by the arrest, and that she has been wrongly labeled as someone who makes meth.

Her police mug shot ran on the front page of her local newspaper, she wrote, in a letter to the Tribune-Star, “with an article entitled, ‘17 Arrested in Drug Sweep.’”

“That is something I have never been involved in,” she said of meth.

When she told her co-workers about the arrest, she said, they could not believe it. They have been supportive of her, she said, and other friends in the community have tried to help stop the misinformation that has spread because of the arrest.

The morning she was arrested, Harpold and her husband were awakened by police officers banging on the front door of their home at Midway along U.S. 36. She was allowed to get dressed, and was then taken in handcuffs to the Clinton Police Department, where she was questioned about her cold medicine purchases. She was later booked into jail, and her husband had to pay $300 bail to get her released.

Harpold said she did go talk to the prosecutor about the situation, and Alexander offered her the deferral program, in which Harpold is required to pay the court costs, abide by all laws and not be arrested for 30 days. At the end of 30 days, the class-C misdemeanor will be erased from her record.

Alexander said she is working with Harpold about the charge, but the prosecutor asserts that Harpold did break the law with her purchases and is being held accountable.

“I do want people to know that we will check the pharmacy records and we will prosecute people who violate this law,” Alexander said.

Vermillion County Sheriff Bob Spence said he also is willing to help Harpold overcome the negative situation.

“If there’s any way we can help her, we will,” Spence said.

He explained that the process leading to Harpold’s arrest involved an officer checking area pharmacy purchase records, and coming up with about 40 purchases that violated the law.

That information was then taken to the prosecutor, whose staff drew up the probable cause affidavits to be filed in court. A judge then found probable cause and issued arrest warrants, and the sheriff’s department is required by statute to see that the warrants are served.

Harpold was not arrested by Vermillion County officers, Spence stressed, since her residence is in Parke County. But she was returned to Clinton where she was questioned and processed.

Spence agreed with pharmacist Vencel’s scenario that the people making the meth often send other people to buy the medicine. And Vigo County Sheriff Jon Marvel, who recently renewed efforts to track pseudoephedrine sales in the Wabash Valley, understands Harpold’s arrest is embarrassing for her.

“Sometimes mistakes happen,” Marvel said. “It’s unfortunate. But for the good of everyone, the law was put into effect.

“I feel for her, but if she could go to one of the area hospitals and see a baby born to a meth-addicted mother …”

For now, Harpold is hoping to raise public awareness so others will avoid the stress she is going through. She has written to state lawmakers and to U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh and Congressman Brad Ellsworth about changing the law.

So far, only Lugar has responded to her letter, she said, but she will continue to pursue the issue.

“I just don’t want this to happen to other people.”



Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.