CVS had implemented a flawed system to perform electronic monitoring required by the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act—one exploited by smurfers. According to the non-prosecution agreement, senior CVS managers knew their MethCheck monitoring system wasn't working when, in late 2007 and 2008, sales of regulated decongestants boomed. Employees at some stores were also knowingly overselling the allergy products. Company officials acknowledged CVS sold excessive pseudoephedrine to criminals manufacturing methamphetamine, paid a $75 million fine and forfeited $2.6 million in profits. The agreement also mandated CVS fix its monitoring system, which links to the same database that flagged Bolanos.

On March 16, 2011, members of the Orange County Proactive Methamphetamine Laboratory Investigatory Task Force followed Bolanos on a shopping spree that started from her home in Lynwood and ended that afternoon when Chula Vista police officers pulled her over in San Diego County, ostensibly for a cracked windshield, searched her van, explained all the allergy medication she had was illegal, then let her go.

Bolanos probably should have been more suspicious, but instead, on April 21, she picked up Climaco, and the pair went pharmacy hopping across Buena Park, Anaheim and Cerritos. When they were arrested later that day, the van held 90 grams of pseudoephedrine.

Luke McGarry

Bolanos told DEA agents she was struggling to raise money for her daughter's quinceañera celebration. She said when her mother died a few years earlier, she lost her caretaker income, and her catering and cosmetic businesses were failing. She later told Judge Selna she had been a victim of abuse for much of her life, first from her father, then her husband.

Selna joins a chorus of jurists questioning whether Congress is pushing them to deal with people such as Bolanos too harshly. Judge Mark Gennett of the Northern District of Iowa, where methamphetamine cases account for 78 percent of his drug docket, lamented in The Nation magazine that federal law has forced him to send more than 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders to prison. In his article, Gennett described smurfers as "the low-hanging fruit of the drug war."

A federal judge in New York, John Gleeson, took aim at drug laws in a recent memorandum. "The flaw is simply stated: the guideline ranges for drug-trafficking offenses are not based on empirical data, commission expertise, or the actual culpability of defendants," he wrote. "If they were, they would be much less severe, and judges would respect them more."

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