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CHICAGO -- A survey by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office shows that just 5 percent of Cook County convenience store owners are complying with the new laws designed to stem the spread of methamphetamine by controlling the flow of its ingredients, especially cold medicines.
The report in the Chicago Tribune noted that, by contrast, 97 percent of pharmacies and chain drugstores followed the rules.
A state law that took effect in January prohibits stores without licensed pharmacists from selling to a customer more than one "convenience pack" of two pills containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Merchants must also keep such products behind the counter, require photo identification and log the names of buyers.
So far, Madigan's office is focusing on education, not prosecution. But Cara Smith, policy director for Madigan's office, said a second strike would result in fines of at least $500.
Smith said meth producers look to exploit weak spots in the system, and that so far, convenience-store compliance presents a gap in the state's methamphetamine crackdown.
Walt Hehner, deputy chief of the narcotics prosecution bureau for the Cook County state's attorney, said the main targets for law enforcement here remain the mass producers of the drug, though no violator is completely safe. "If [a merchant] is going to be charged with this, they are going to have to be asking to be charged," he said.
Still, authorities say the nature of convenience stores makes compliance a challenge.
Unlike Walgreens and CVS stores where employees receive frequent legislative updates from corporate headquarters, 60 percent of convenience stores are single-store operations, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
The association's spokesman told the Tribune that immigrants make up a disproportionate share of store owners, although he did not have specific data. And though the attorney general's office worked with the state convenience store association to notify its members of the new laws, many convenience store owners are not members.
So in recent weeks, members of an outreach campaign hit dozens of stores in the Loop, Uptown, Edgewater, Lakeview and the suburbs. Of 19 visited with a Tribune reporter last week, 16 store owners identified themselves as immigrants from south Asia.
Almost all merchants were properly displaying medicines behind the counter.
But when asked about the other components of the law, few were aware they could only sell one package at a time.
"No one ever buys more than one. They just get their box, a bottle of water and that's it," explained one Edgewater merchant.
Others had heard of the law but thought it pertained to expiration dates.
On Sunday, a small group of merchants heard from prosecutors and lawyers at the Indo-American Center about their legal obligations, the latest step in the outreach by the local Indian and Pakistani bar associations.
Sadruddin Noorani, owner of a Loop convenience store, said Sunday's informational meeting was "eye-opening." He plans to spread information through the Pakistani Business Association of Chicago. "The law says if you aren't aware, that's not a good excuse," Noorani said.
The consequences of the strict meth laws were made starkly clear last year during Operation Meth Merchant, a federal sting against convenience stores in Georgia. Federal prosecutors said employees knew that meth production was behind the purchases of medicines, antifreeze and other products.
Of the 49 workers charged, 44 were south Asian immigrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a motion accusing federal prosecutors of selective prosecution. U.S. Attorney David Nahmias released a statement defending the sweep, emphasizing "we prosecute people based on the evidence and the law, not their race or ethnicity."
The arrests triggered protests by the Racial Justice Campaign Against Operation Meth Merchant, a coalition that includes a representative of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Of the 44 employees, about two dozen have already pleaded guilty, while charges were dismissed against eight others.
Deepali Gokhale, organizer of the campaign, said the arrests show the need to educate immigrants about legal responsibilities.