Pubdate: Tue, 11 Oct 2005
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Jordan Schrader, Staff Writer


When Macon County sheriff's deputies charged Robert Charles Sanders 
with trafficking in methamphetamine in June, the Franklin resident 
already had a list of pending charges stretching back to last year.

But Sanders, 26, would not be sentenced to prison until Oct. 3.

The reason his case and many other drug cases have languished for 
more than a year on the court docket, Sheriff Robert Holland says, is simple.

"You may know it's meth, or you may know it's marijuana or cocaine or 
whatever," Holland said, "but it has to be scientifically proven that it is."

Testing drug samples from crime scenes across Western North Carolina 
is the responsibility of six chemists at a lab in Skyland. Every time 
they break off a piece of methamphetamine or cocaine for their 
machines to analyze, these State Bureau of Investigation agents also 
chip away at a backlog of 3,500 cases.

But Special Agent in Charge Joseph Reavis says relief is in sight for 
his crew of chemists, thanks to new employees, new space for them to 
work and new equipment.

A federal grant of $168,000, awarded in September to fight North 
Carolina's growing meth problem, will buy two new machines for the 
lab, according to Attorney General Roy Cooper's office. The money 
also will buy one machine for the SBI's only other lab in Raleigh, 
which also faces a backlog. Together the two labs have a $7.4 million 
annual budget.

The General Assembly last year approved doubling the western lab's 
staff of chemists to 10. And the lab is nearly doubling in size, too, 
with an expansion expected to finish around the end of this year.

An eight-month backlog has accumulated there, Reavis said, even 
though a single chemist often can dispose of one case in less than an hour.

Between 9 and 11 on one morning in late September, Robert Briner 
logged the results of three finished tests in his black notebook.

First up for Briner was a substance from Gaston County, one of 30 
western counties the lab serves. The chemist crumbled a bit of the 
drug into a coin-sized hole in a tray. He squeezed a drop or two of a 
chemical into the tray, turning it an orange color close to the hue 
of the polo shirt Briner wore under his white lab coat.

Orange could mean meth. But he needed two positive tests to be sure, 
and an infrared scan found the drug too impure to give an accurate result.

So Briner dropped a piece into a gas chromatograph, the same kind of 
machine that the federal grant will buy. The device shattered the 
sample and analyzed the pattern it made, bringing up a graph that 
zigged and zagged across a screen. It was a close match to the 
typical shatter pattern for meth.

One case down, more than 3,500 pending.

Meth production has surged in Western North Carolina, with 322 meth 
labs discovered in 2004 and 270 this year as of Wednesday. Just nine 
were found in 1999.

When a meth lab is found, an SBI chemist sealed in a hazardous 
materials suit is on the scene to collect evidence. When suspects go 
to trial, a chemist sometimes testifies.

But chemists' most important role in the fight against meth is to 
test the drugs. The attorney general was pleased that U.S. Sen. 
Elizabeth Dole's office helped obtain more equipment to do that, even 
if the federal money was less than the $2.3 million his office said 
he asked for.

"The quicker we can analyze these cases, the faster we can bring 
these criminals to justice," Cooper said. "These meth labs endanger 
our community and our families, and it's important we put a stop to them."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Elizabeth Wehrman