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Column: Meth Resurgence Requires New State and Federal Action

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

Ross Parker

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

If you haven’t seen the Oscar-nominated film Winter’s Bone yet, put it on your to-do list. The movie is about a seventeen-year old Ozark girl who searches for her fugitive father, a long time meth maker, among the dangerous and bleak terrain of the mountains’ criminal clans who manufacture and sell the drug.

Not only is the movie powerful entertainment, but it serves as a warning of the resurgence of the meth scourge, which is once again sweeping across the country, especially in the South.

In 2005, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act imposed restrictions and regulations on the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products in drug stores.

Since these precursors, found in cold remedies, are used in the most common method of meth production, the idea was that restricting its availability would inhibit production. And it did for a couple years.

The federal statute, which went into effect in 2006, requires that ephedrine/pseudoephedrine products be kept “behind the counter” in drug stores. Sales are limited to 3.6 grams a day (and 9 grams in a thirty-day period) for individual buyers, who are required to show government issued identification. Drug stores are required to keep a log on purchases and to contribute this information to a state database.

These federal restrictions, along with specific state laws, worked and drug lab seizures were down during the period of 2005-2007 in most states.

Recent analyses by DEA and other sources, however, show that both use and production are back on the rise (Lab seizures are up 92% from 2007 to the end of 2009.), especially in certain states such as Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and North Carolina. Without an aggressive response, other state increases can’t be far behind.

According to law enforcement agents, there are two reasons for this resurgence. First, new production methods have shifted to smaller operations. Traffickers get around the restrictions by having numerous people make small purchases at a series of drug stores and then the quantities are pooled for use in the manufacture. This strategy, called “smurfing,” is highly profitable for the buyers and is often well organized.

Second, production has largely shifted from “super labs” in Mexico and California to small, portable “trash labs’ in which manufacturers replace cooking with the “shake and bake” method of inducing the necessary chemical reaction. For every pound of meth produced, six pounds of toxic waste results. This is typically dumped in the trash, hence the name “trash labs.”

These noxious by-products are a dangerous hazard to investigating agents and to the environment. They are also expensive to clean up.

Many law enforcement officers consider meth to pose the most vicious and intractable drug problem facing America. No other illegal drug results in the collateral costs to individuals, families and the public.

At a time when state and federal budgets are strained to the limit, this resurgence will mean lost labor productivity and increased medical and social service costs.

Other costs include law enforcement and criminal justice expenses, endangered children put in foster care, drug treatment, and lab injuries and deaths. A recent study by the Rand Corporation valued the annual costs in the United States for methamphetamine-related activities to exceed $20 billion.

So what can be done to combat the meth revival?

1. Impose stricter controls on precursors. Consider requiring prescriptions for ephedrine/

pseudoephedrine products, as Oregon and Mississippi have done. These and other steps by these two states have resulted in a 90% and 68% reduction, respectively, in the number of meth labs. These steps will be unpopular among the powerful pharmaceutical

lobby which is protective of its $550 million industry, but the human and economic costs have become unacceptable.

2. Require drug stores to use electronic reporting to log ephedrine purchases, as Missouri did in 2008. This has been shown to provide at least some limited inhibition on manufacturing operations and to facilitate the gathering of intelligence information by law enforcement investigators. The entire logbook system needs further review to determine more effective ways to discourage smurfers.

3. Increase DEA and state law enforcement resources to investigate these illusive drug operations. Inter-agency task forces with additional funding, such as the one in Kansas City, have been successful in investigating and interdicting these criminal groups.

4. States should impose their own restrictions on precursor sales and should communicate, perhaps under DEA leadership, about successful enforcement strategies. For example, Iowa has had significant success by a voluntary program of adding a “chemical lock,” calcium nitrate inhibitor, to anhydrous ammonia. Since this greatly reduces the yield of ephedrine, the theft of the fertilizer by meth producers has been greatly reduced.

5. Better education is needed, especially among youth, on the fatal effects of this highly addictive and irreversibly damaging drug on the brain, heart and nervous system. Kids have to learn that using meth is a dead-end street.

In addition to the wasted and desperate lives portrayed in Winter’s Bone, the movie also dramatizes the difficult job drug investigators have in making prosecutable cases. In addition to destroying families, the meth culture makes cooperation with law enforcement so dangerous that enforcement actions are often nearly impossible. We need to find new tools to support law enforcement in this area, for all of our sakes.


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