Meth lab finds up despite ingredient tracking
From Staff and Wire Reports
NASHVILLE — A new state law requiring the real-time tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases does not seem to have decreased methamphetamine production in Tennessee.
Beginning in January 2012, pharmacists were required to use a database to track sales of the over-the-counter drugs used to produce meth. Pseudoephedrine is the main drug but there are others. Collectively they are known as pharmacy precursors.
Despite the database, a report from the Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability found meth lab incidents between January and September 2012 were 6 percent higher than during the same period in 2011.
Beginning in 2005, Tennessee passed laws limiting the amount of pharmacy precursors that an individual can purchase. The precursors were also put behind the counter and purchasers were required to show ID.
Those measures seem to have limited meth production in Tennessee temporarily. But in 2007, meth lab incidents began to increase again, reaching 2,157 in 2010 — the highest number of incidents anywhere in the county.
According to the report, the increase could be due to a shift to the “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method that allows producers to quickly produce small batches of meth in multiple locations.
Blount County authorities have noted that these “one-pot” labs — in which the drug production takes place in one or two small soda or sports drink bottles — have become increasingly more common.
Captain Ron Talbott, of the 5th Judicial Drug Task Force, said this method is quick and easy. And, since many will shoplift all the other ingredients apart from the pseudoephedrine, it’s incredibly cheap.
“It’s easier, it’s simpler, it’s faster,” Talbott said. “That just makes it that much more attractive for the cooks because they can take one box of Sudafed and get an 80 to 90 percent yield. So basically (they’re) spending a few dollars at the pharmacy and shoplifting everything else.”
In 2010, there were five meth labs discovered in Blount County. In 2011 that number rose to 12. Authorities found a total of 20 meth labs in all of 2012 and, so far in 2013, there have been four labs discovered.
Buys tracked online
Pharmacists in the state are now required to log all pseudoephedrine purchases through an online database called NPLEx. Phil LaFoy, co-owner of Blount Discount Pharmacy, explained that the law limits customers to 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine, or six 24-tablet boxes, per day. Customers are also not allowed to purchase more than 9 grams of the medicine in a 30-day period.
“What the law did was it established a real-time database at the retail level,” LaFoy said. “So when you come in and you want to buy Sudafed from me, I know if you just bought it across the street at CVS ... NPLEx is across state lines, so if they go to Kentucky (to buy it), we know.”
And while the number of meth lab discoveries has grown within the last few years, authorities said this may be more indicative of citizens knowing what to look for rather than the new online database not working. Additionally, law enforcement and area pharmacies are working hand-in-hand to report not only pseudoephedrine purchases, but also suspicious buyers and activities.
“(We’ve) been working with the 5th Judicial Drug Task Force for as long as they’ve been around,” LaFoy said.
Captain Talbott noted that this collaboration with pharmacies has helped law enforcement make more meth-related arrests.
In 2011, 70 to 75 percent of lab incidents in Tennessee involved the shake-and-bake method, according to the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.
Another likely reason for the increase is that producers have found ways around the purchasing restrictions by recruiting straw buyers called “smurfs” and using fake IDs.
Also, it is possible that law enforcement is finding more labs thanks to the database.
Serious meth toll
Methamphetamine production in Tennessee takes a toll on the health and resources of communities. According to the report, in 2010, the state spent about $4 million in federal money for lab cleanup.
In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, 722 children were put in Department of Children’s Services custody due to meth issues, costing just under $20 million. A single burn patient from a meth lab explosion cost $1 million to treat in 2009 and 2010.
Finding a solution to the problem is becoming more urgent as federal funding begins to run out.
Since federal fiscal year 2002, Tennessee has received $37.2 million for enforcement and cleanup. But federal funding is ending for enforcement and funding for cleanup has been fluctuating.
Tennessee is one of four states operating statewide tracking of pharmacy precursor sales. The others are Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma. According to the report, meth lab incident trends in these four states do not differ from other high meth production states without tracking.
Meanwhile, Mississippi, Oregon and parts of Missouri have seen decreases in meth lab incidents after requiring prescriptions to purchase pharmacy precursors. However, there is not enough data to determine whether the decreases are due to the prescription requirements and some studies suggest other factors.
The report also warns that reducing meth production in Tennessee does not necessarily mean fewer people will use the drug. It notes that in many parts of the U.S. most of the methamphetamine is supplied by Mexican transnational criminal organizations and is produced in foreign and domestic super labs.