Huge fine for chemist in crystal meth scandal

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The largest retail chemist in the US has agreed to pay a record civil fine after the government said its shops had served as a key link in drug trafficking chains in California and possibly elsewhere by selling uncontrolled quantities of a key ingredient in methamphetamine.

For CVS, which has thousands of outlets across the US and promotes a family image, the fine is a deep embarrassment. It has agreed to pay $75m (£47m) to the government, the largest fine every levied under the Controlled Substances Act. In return, however, the chain will avoid criminal charges.

News of the fine comes as communities across the country struggle with the scourge of methamphetamine abuse. Also known as crystal meth, the drug is as addictive as many other proscribed substances like cocaine and heroin but is much cheaper to produce if the ingredients are available.

They include pseudoephedrine, a medicine typically used to treat cold symptoms like nasal congestion. CVS, which sells its own generic brand of the medicine, should have had computer programmes in place to ensure that customers were limited to just three purchases a month.

It appears, though, that its outlets had no such controls, meaning that staff were either unaware of the limits or were not implementing them, even though customers have to ask specifically for the drug from behind the counter. It is not available on the shelves in the aisles.

An investigation that began in 2008 found evidence that traffickers in California had deployed minions to return repeatedly to CVS outlets to buy the drug, "sometimes cleaning out shelves," officials said.

From September 2007 to November 2008, CVS sold more generic pseudoephedrine in its Southern California stores than in the whole of the rest of the country. CVS was in "flagrant violation" of the country's drug laws and had allowed itself to become "a direct link in the methamphetamine supply chain", said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

One customer managed to buy pseudoephedrine 10 times in 53 minutes in a single CVS shop, investigators said. Nor, apparently, did the buyers make any attempts to conceal their multiple purchases because staff attitudes at the CVS counters were so lax. "CVS knew it had a duty to prevent methamphetamine trafficking, but it failed to take steps to control the sale of a regulated drug used by methamphetamine cooks as an essential ingredient for their poisonous stew," said US Attorney Andre Birotte.

The company also agreed to forfeit $2.6m in profits made from sales of pseudoephedrine and to instigate a new ethics training programme for its sales staff.

What was occurring in California, Nevada and in up to 23 other states across the US "was an unacceptable breach of the company's policies and was totally inconsistent with our values," Thomas Ryan, chairman of CVS Caremark, said.