More meth labs found in Tenn. in 2010

Police around the state logged 2,095 suspected meth labs in 2010, according to preliminary statistics from the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force

By Matt Lakin
Knoxville News Sentinel

Another year set another record for methamphetamine labs in Tennessee, with nearly 2,100 suspected labs busted last year, higher even than initially projected.

The high-water mark comes as lawmakers consider whether to tighten controls on the drug's main ingredient and look for ways to slash spending - including the federal grant that helps cover overtime and other meth-related costs.

"This drug's a cost to our whole society," said Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens, whose county ranked second in the state for reported meth busts last year. "It doesn't just impact the person using it. Their whole family's affected. Childrenup in foster care. Insurance rates and hospital costs go up. That's not counting court costs for all these suspects. Then there's the thefts and burglaries people commit to get money to buy the drug. It impacts us all."

Police around the state logged 2,095 suspected meth labs in 2010, according to preliminary statistics from the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force - the highest total in state history. That's an increase of more than 45 percent from 2009, when authorities reported 1,437 meth labs seized, and it's more than three times the total from just four years ago.

The final count could be higher once all agencies wrap up their reporting, said Tommy Farmer, the task force's director. The state ranked second only to Missouri last year for reported labs.

Authorities said they've seen the surge build for the past four years because of the popularity of the "shake and bake" or "one pot" method, which simplifies the older, more complicated recipes and boils the process down to a handful of ingredients that fit in a 2- liter bottle. Investigators believe that same method caused the fiery explosion Thursday in Campbell County that gutted an apartment building, burned a man and left a group of families homeless.

Cooks make meth, a stimulant, by breaking down pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in cold pills such as Sudafed. Tennessee moved those pills behind the counter nearly six years ago, set limits on sales and began tracking purchases.

Police say that solution worked only briefly. Cooks settled on the shake-andbake method, which requires fewer pills, and began recruiting "smurfs," usually addicts, to buy pills for them.

McMinn County topped the state's list for the second year in a row with 161 suspected labs seized in 2010 - and more than 600 in the past decade. Monroe County took second place with 139 suspected labs, followed by Campbell County with 117 and Hamilton County with 104.

Those four counties, all clustered along Interstate 75 in East Tennessee, accounted for nearly a fourth of the year's lab totals. Authorities say that's partly due to the drug's roots in the region, where a pair of meth cooks transplanted their lab from California 18 years ago, and partly due to the work of local officers as busy as the cooks.

"It's about being proactive, and that ought to be recognized," said Steve Lawson, director of the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force, which covers McMinn, Monroe, Polk and Bradley counties. "This is a drug of opportunity right now."

That work added up to hours of overtime covered by the federal grant that funds the state meth task force. That grant comes from an add-on, or earmark, to the federal budget.

Republican leaders in Congress have called for doing away with such earmarks.

"That would be a disaster," Lawson said. "Not many of these small departments can afford that kind of overtime and cleanup costs. That would eat their budgets up."

The cooks don't stick to the countryside. Shelby County, which covers most of Memphis, made the state's top 10 for the first time last year with nearly 100 reported labs.

"It might have started as a rural drug, but now maybe it's blending over into the urban areas," Lawson said.

Some agencies have called for returning pseudoephedrine to prescription-only status, a step only two states have taken so far. Oregon, which made that move in 2006, reported 13 meth labs last year. Mississippi made the move in July and reported a 68 percent drop in suspected labs for the months since.

"We've got to take away the source," said Bivens, the Monroe County sheriff. "Without pseudoephedrine, they can't make it."

Pharmacists and drug companies say that solution just punishes law-abiding patients who need relief. They're pushing for a privately maintained electronic database, operated by Kentucky- based Appriss, that would span state borders.

"It would prevent sales and give us valuable information," said Baeteena Black, director of the Tennessee Pharmacists Association. "At the same time, it would not impair the members of the public who need a safe product."

That battle could be fought out at the legislative level this year.

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