Pubdate: Mon, 27 Feb 2012
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2012 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: Paul A. Specht and Colin Campbell


Methamphetamine busts reached a record high last year in the state
because of new methods of cooking the drug and more organized efforts
to access it, according to N.C.Attorney General Roy Cooper and county

Meth lab busts totaled 344 in 2011 - a 57 percent increase from 2006,
when new state laws restricted the purchase of pseudoephedrine, meth's
key ingredient.

Cooper said the laws are working because the number of large-scale
meth operations is down, but busts have risen with the popularity of
the simpler and cheaper "one pot," or "shake and bake" method.

"It has escalated to the point where it accounts for about half of the
labs we bust,"Cooper said, noting that the state's first one-pot lab
bust occurred in 2009.

The one-pot method requires fewer ingredients, which are mixed in
two-liter soda bottles instead of the traditional, unsealed makeshift
beakers. Though small, the bottles are still considered labs in the
eyes of the law and are just as dangerous.

Explosions from the bottles typically aren't as big, but are more

"You should see the addicts that come through our hospital out here,"
said Jimmy Thornton, Sampson County Sheriff. "They're strung out, and
half the time they come in having blown holes in themselves."

Sampson had the eighth-most busts last year with 11. That's an
improvement for a county that, in 2008, had 13 busts in two months and
about 30 for that year. But Thornton says the tides again are
changing. He's seen one-pot busts skyrocket in recent months.

"We've only slowed them with the restrictions. (The buyers) are
learning to organize, to communicate with others from across the state
and across the South so they can coordinate their Sudafed (a brand of
pseudoephedrine) buys without getting caught," he said.

Burke County showed the most activity last year with 34 meth lab
busts. Watauga County was second with 22.

Wake County has busted 10 meth labs in the last decade, Sheriff Donnie
Harrison says. But Wake's neighbors to the east are experiencing a

Last week, two men in Johnston County were arrested for meth
trafficking. Deputies seized about 70 vessels used to cook meth,
capable of producing pounds of the substance.

Johnston tied Anson County for the sixth-most meth busts (13) in 2011.
It has five busts this year already.

While meth busts help communities, they're risky for local
authorities. Meth makers are often armed and their chemicals unstable.

"(They are) truly dangerous," said Capt. Craig Fish, head of narcotics
at the Johnston County Sheriff's Department.

Lab cleanup is costly

They are also costly to taxpayers.

Most meth labs cost between $3,000 and $10,000 to clean up, Cooper

After suspects are arrested, officers survey the scene and try to
separate all the volatile chemicals. That can take hours, and the
officers have to wear Tyvek suits and masks in sometimes-scorching
temperatures. An outside company is then hired to cart off and dispose
of the chemicals. And if a meth lab is inside a building, property
owners have a checklist of decontamination tasks before the building
can be used again.

Until funding dried up and laws changed in February 2011, the federal
Drug Enforcement Administration paid for each cleanup.

Now, local law enforcement agencies foot the bill - something Cooper
plans to change.

"Agencies that make the bust shouldn't be punished with a
multi-thousand-dollar cleanup," he said.

By April, the State Bureau of Investigation will open meth response
and containment stations in four regions of the state, Cooper said.

Local agencies will then be able to request help from the SBI, which
will dispatch a team of experts to dispose of the meth lab.

"This will take the financial burden off of the local agencies,"
Cooper said.

The stations are awaiting approval from federal safety

New pharmacy network

Cooper hopes the number of meth labs will shrink with a law enacted
this year that requires pharmacies to use an electronic tracking system.

The system, called theNational Precursor Log Exchange, allows
pharmacies to see whether someone has bought his pseudoephedrine limit.

A state law enacted in 2006 prohibit the purchase of more than two
packages at once, or more than three packages within 30 days. The law
also requires all products containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to
be placed behind a counter.

More than two-thirds of North Carolina pharmacies are now using the
system, which links 18 states. As of last week, the system had helped
stop more than 5,000 illegal purchases, Cooper said.

Cooper: We can do more

Despite North Carolina's proactive approach, Cooper and others think
the state should be doing more to stymie meth use.

Fish and Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell have been working with
prosecutors to ban suspects arrested in meth busts from buying any
pseudoephedrine while out on bail awaiting trial. About 96 percent of
meth users will take the drug again after they're arrested, Fish said.
His detectives have busted many of the same suspects repeatedly.

They want those convicted of using meth or running a meth lab to be
banned from buying the drug again.

Such actions are not out of the question. Cooper also thinks state
lawmakers should consider making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.

"It would be expensive to do, but it may come down to that sooner or
later," Cooper said. "We have to keep up, because (the users) will
always be one step ahead." 
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