Pubdate: Mon, 21 Mar 2011 Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA) Copyright: 2011 Athens Newspapers Inc Contact: http://www.onlineathens.com/feedback.shtml Website: http://www.onlineathens.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1535 Author: Merritt Melancon SMALL-SCALE METH LABS POPPING UP ALL OVER Just when they seemed to be making headway in the fight against methamphetamine, state law enforcement officers recorded nearly twice as many meth lab busts in 2010 as in 2009 and expect to find even more in 2011. Meth production in Georgia dropped off about 2005 when the state started to regulate the sale of the household chemicals used to make the drug. But meth cooks have devised a simpler process to create the toxic drug, and officers are finding more and more of these smaller, simpler labs. "Whenever you started to see the laws limiting the raw components for methamphetamine, of course, the manufacturers had to make adjustments," said Lt. Ken Harmon, who at the end of February helped the Commerce Police Department uncover a small meth lab in a home. "What we've started to see is more of these one-pot cooks. You don't need as much of the raw material, so it's easier for them to gather up the materials." The Georgia Bureau of Investigation helped to dismantle 289 small-scale meth labs in 2010, an almost 100 percent jump over the 152 found in 2008 and the 165 found in 2009, according to federal crime statistics. The Georgia General Assembly passed a law in 2005 that limited the amount of the pseudoephedrine - a legitimate decongestant and essential ingredient in methamphetamine - that consumers could buy at one time. The production of meth in Georgia seemed to plummet, said Mike Ayers, special agent in charge of narcotics investigations for the GBI's Athens and Thomson offices. Latin American drug cartels started to import large amounts of the illicit drug to fill the void left in the market, he added. The drug cartels still are importing meth into Georgia, but state officials also are seeing a proliferation of small labs designed mostly for personal use, Ayers said. "We're probably more successful dealing with the Mexican drug cartels than we are dealing with the individual who is riding around in his car with a two-liter Coke bottle cooking his own meth," Ayers said. "That has become a real serious problem for us." Meth cooks have found ways to circumvent the controls on pseudoephedrine, finding new ways to buy the materials and new ways to make meth with less pseudoephedrine than called for in earlier recipes. They buy the maximum amount of decongestant allowed by law from several pharmacies, eventually collecting enough of the drug to make a single small batch of methamphetamine. Law enforcement call this process smurfing, Ayers said. "They don't attempt to circumvent the registering of (the purchase); they just go to another location and buy more," Ayers said. "They'll run a circuit buying up pills sometimes over a rather large geographical area, and then they'll come back together, put all that together and actually make the methamphetamine." The lab that the Commerce Police Department uncovered at the end of February was the first officers had found there for several years, Harmon said. Three people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. They appeared to be working together to make the drug for personal use, Harmon said. Police found the lab in a house on Spring Street when an anonymous tipster called. The residents were cooking methamphetamine in soda bottles and other plastic containers popular with one-pot meth cooks, he said. "What we would call a lab would really fit inside a cardboard box," Harmon said. Barrow County sheriff's deputies at the end of January found a similar small-scale meth lab in the trunk of an Oldsmobile Alero driven by a Tennessee couple. While the small size of these new meth labs makes them harder to detect, law enforcement officials are making strides in tracking down smurfers, Ayers said. Ayers believes that the key to cracking down on this new wave of small-scale meth cooks is to further limit the sale of pseudoephedrine in Georgia, he said. "Georgia is one of the few states, the only state in the Southeastern United States, that doesn't heavily regulate or schedule, pseudoephedrine," he said. "In most states, when you buy pseudoephedrine, you have to have a prescription." The state House of Representatives considered a bill this spring to require a prescription to buy decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, but the legislation died. "People might worry that it's cumbersome, and that it might be more expensive for people," Ayers said. "It will be, but pseudoephedrine allows for the manufacture of methamphetamine. If we don't change, then we're going to allow an epidemic to take hold. "It's going to be worse than it ever has been, because it is so simple to manufacture right now, and the cost of manufacturing is relatively inexpensive." - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.