Crime & Courts

Anti-meth laws appear to have cut production

WASHINGTON — Illegal meth labs have become scarcer and their federally funded cleanups cheaper, a new report shows.

Since 2006, when Congress passed an anti-methamphetamine measure, the number of meth lab cleanups nationwide "has decreased significantly," auditors found. Investigators attribute the decline to the law that made it harder to buy key chemicals used in illicit drug production.

"DEA officials attribute the decrease in cleanups... to the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which imposed significant restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine to methamphetamine manufacturers," inspector general auditors noted.

In Kansas, the state Legislature enacted the Matt Samuels Law in 2005, with restrictions similar to the federal law. The state law was named after the Greenwood County Sheriff shot to death earlier that year at a house being used as a meth lab. Scott Cheever said he was high on meth when he killed Samuels.

That year, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation counted 390 meth lab seizures across the state. Those dropped by about half, to 168 in 2006, and to 56 last year.

"You can't make meth without ephedrine or pseudoephedrine," said Cowley County Sheriff Don Read, whose county has seen meth lab incidents drop from 53 in 2005 to five last year. "You take away a critical component and that makes a big difference."

Read also credits local, state and federal authorities for educating civic groups, schools and other residents on what to look for in their neighborhoods. He said that produced calls that resulted in meth lab seizures.

"Aggressive enforcement has also played a role," Read said.

Fewer cleanups

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration funded the cleanup of a record 11,790 methamphetamine labs in fiscal 2005. By fiscal 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, the DEA funded the cleanup of 3,866 labs.

Contract improvements and other revisions cut the average cost per lab cleanup from $3,600 in fiscal 2007 to $2,200 in fiscal 2009, auditors with the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General noted.

California — which in 1999 was ruefully dubbed a "source country" for its ample meth production, particularly in the remote rural stretches of the Central Valley — had only 13 meth labs cleaned up by the DEA in fiscal 2008, the new audit notes. Though state authorities cleaned up additional labs not counted by the DEA, law enforcement officers generally like the overall trend.

Kansas had seven federally funded cleanups in 2008, according to the report.

The DEA report, however, doesn't indicate whether meth use has declined in the U.S.

In recent years, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted late last month, meth production "was displaced over the border to Mexico." The amount of methamphetamine seized near the U.S.-Mexico border nearly doubled from 2007 to 2009, the annual U.N. drug report stated.

"I can't say use has dropped," said Read, the Cowley County sheriff. "We have a drug court down here and most of our clients are there because they use meth."

Still work to do

Because the federal rules passed in 2006 limited the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be sold, moved products containing it behind the pharmacy counter and imposed record-keeping requirements, domestic drug gangs now resort to "smurfing. "

That involves frequently purchasing medicines in quantities small enough to avoid normal restrictions.

"They'll go into a homeless shelter and get a dozen people, and then bring them to every pharmacy in the county to buy cold medicine blister packs," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in California. The agency helps coordinate state, local and federal anti-drug efforts in the region.

Meth is still being cooked across Kansas, too.

In February, Kansas Attorney General Steve Six charged 20 people in Chanute, Iola, Stark, Paola and Fort Scott for obtaining large amounts of pseudoephedrine and making the drug.

Last year, Six announced the Kansas Meth Initiative, which provided $1 million in additional funding for prosecutors to support the task force and training for officers in southeast Kansas.

The illicit labs, in addition to meth, produce toxic waste. These toxic byproducts can burn, explode and corrode; they can sicken law enforcement officers cleaning up the labs and seep into groundwater.

More than half of the meth incidents reported by the KBI come from such "dumpsites."

In fiscal 2008, the DEA spent about $16.6 million on drug lab cleanups. This paid for cleaning up 190 labs in Florida, 175 labs in Texas, 161 labs in North Carolina and 50 labs in Missouri, among others.

States also spend additional money for their own cleanups.