Oklahoma's Meth Race

James Leone, a 35-year-old narcotics agent with Oklahoma's drug task force, has shut down four methamphetamine labs so far this year, a dramatic drop from the pace that led to 106 raids in 2003 in the same two rural counties in northern Oklahoma.

Leone and state officials credit a tough 2004 Oklahoma law restricting the sale of cold tablets for the dramatic decrease in meth lab seizures; some parts of the state have seen an 80 percent drop in the past year. Leone, a five-year veteran in the "war against meth," predicts an even bigger decline when the neighboring states of Arkansas and Missouri fully implement their own measures to crack down on the highly addictive street drug also known as "ice," "crank" or "poor man's cocaine."

Oklahoma was the first state to restrict the availability of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant crucial in making meth, by moving certain non-prescription cold tablets such as Sinutab and Sudafed behind the pharmacy counter. Shoppers in Oklahoma are limited in how many packets of the medication containing pseudoephedrine they can buy at one time and must show ID and sign for the tablets.

This year Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee OK'd new laws making it harder to buy medications containing pseudoephedrine while Arkansas and Oregon acted last year. In all, 42 states have expressed interest in the Oklahoma measure, said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

States' interest in shutting down meth labs goes beyond trying to rein in illegal drug use. Meth may be cheap to make, but it carries a hefty price tag for states. Meth labs are dangerous, smelly and toxic to children who are often exposed to the "cooking" of the drug. In Iowa, for example, more than 950 children in 2002 and 2003 were removed from homes where meth was present.

Oklahoma estimated that an average meth case costs $350,000, including $54,000 to treat the meth user, $12,000 in child welfare services and $3,500 to decontaminate the area, which essentially is a hazardous waste site that require workers donned in white hazmat suits to clean up. For every pound of meth produced, about six pounds of toxic waste are left behind, said Blake Harrison, a senior policy specialist specializing in criminal justice for the National Conference of State Legislatures .

"For states, meth is the drug issue," according to Harrison. He said this year is already the busiest on the meth issue, and it's still early in the legislative session in many capitals.

Meth labs have boomed since the late 1990s, thanks in large part to the internet, which provided drug peddlers with recipes and cooking instructions. All the ingredients needed to make a small batch of meth can be purchased legally and, in many cases, for less than $100, said Ilene K. Grossman of the Council of State Governments' (CSG) Midwestern Office. Key ingredients include cold tablets, drain cleaners, starter fluid, mason jars, coffee filters, pressure cookers and pillowcases, according to a CSG paper on the topic. An investment of $1,000 in ingredients can yield $20,000 worth of meth, she said. And the drug can be made anywhere, from garages to vans to motel rooms.

Oklahoma's law forced meth cooks in the state to shop elsewhere for ingredients. A recent arrest in Oklahoma, for example, turned up detailed maps and phone numbers of drug and convenience stores in Kansas to the north. Police in Missouri recently arrested some Oklahoma residents who crossed the border to get cold tablets.

Iowa's new law, signed in March 2005, differs in that it pulls off the shelf not just tablets but also liquid and gel caps containing pseudoephedrine. Oklahoma's Woodward said the Sooner State specifically exempted liquid and gel caps because law enforcers were not seeing people making meth from the liquid forms and still aren't. "If they can't get the tablets, they can't cook," he said.

Next on Oklahoma's meth hit list is "smurfing," the practice of going from store to store buying hundreds or even thousands of tablets at a time. The state hopes by summer's end to have a statewide electronic database that keeps track of pseudoephedrine purchases. This way, a pharmacy will know whether someone just purchased pseudoephedrine from another pharmacy down the street and how much.

Beyond targeting pharmacies, states are trying other tactics by:

  • Targeting fertilizers, another ingredient that can be used to make meth. Iowa is using federal dollars to provide locks for anhydrous ammonia tanks, and Ohio in 2004 made the theft of anhydrous ammonia a third-degree felony.
  • Helping retailers. In Kansas, a public-private partnership known as Meth Watch helps retailers train their workers to spot suspicious purchases and notify authorities. Some state attorneys general offer tips for retailers.
  • Beefing up child-endangerment statutes. Several states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and Washington) have expanded their child-abuse or endangerment statutes to include manufacturing a controlled substance in the presence of a child, according to NCSL. Arkansas and Washington have established a separate criminal offense for exposing a child to an illegal chemical substance.

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