Meth in Missouri

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The war on drugs continues to be fought in the United States. Though the damage is evident everywhere, it is not a raging, booming war being fought on a grand scale; it is a battle by skirmish conflict taking place in every state in the union. Just last week, meth-related arrests and seizure of a working lab in the city limits of Nevada showed the strife, especially against methamphetamine, persists Nevada and Vernon County.

The weapons of this clash aren't cannons and tanks and the other machinery of ordinary warfare but information, manpower, money.

A new item in the arsenal against meth was gained in 2005 when Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which limited the ability of methamphetamine manufacturers to gain access to pseudoephedrine, a decongestant and key ingredient of the illicit drug. After this law was enacted, pharmacies were required to keep all such medications behind the counter, require purchasers to show a photo ID and log each sale into record.

This effort met with immediate success and meth lab incidents dropped dramatically in some areas. Across the nation, the number of seizures dropped from 18,581 in 2004 to 13, 403 in 2005, and they declined from there to 8,486 in 2006, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The state of Missouri experienced a similar reduction. The total meth lab related incidents for 2005 was 2,252, but in 2006 that number had declined to 1,284. In Vernon County, the numbers, though much smaller, reflect a similar trend. There were 16 meth lab incidents in the county in 2005 and six in 2006, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol statistics.

However, meth cooks figured out how to beat the system by a method sometimes called "smurfing," by which several people were recruited to travel from area to area and purchase the pills. The slow paper trail of the manual logging system failed to catch up to the smurfers before they could finish their job and deliver the goods to the cook.

The rate of meth lab incidents began to rise in many areas, Missouri and Vernon County included, until June of 2008, when then Governor Matt Blunt signed Senate Bill 724 into law, requiring the purchaser of products containing pseudoephedrine present a government issued photo ID prior to the sale and sign for the product. The law also specified that the log of sales be kept electronically and modified the amount of pseudoephedrine a customer could purchase in 30-day period as well as in a 24-hour period.

Senate Bill 724 made it easier for law enforcement to track where the major ingredient of meth was going and they could do it in almost real time through a tracking system funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Some experts think the rise in incidents has actually been because law enforcement agencies can follow the pills, which makes the person producing the meth much easier to locate.

That could be one reason why a one-year rise in the Vernon County numbers has been followed by numbers that have been steadily on the decline. The number if incidents in the county stood at 16 for 2005 and then dropped to six for 2006, but made a dramatic jump back to 12 in 2007. It has steadily fallen since that time. In 2010 there were only two meth lab incidents in the county. The new law has been helping, according to Vernon County Sheriff Ron Peckman, "but they're going to find another way," he said. Peckman and his office don't rely on just the new laws to lend support in their fight. Better funding is another reason the numbers of meth lab incidents are falling in Vernon County.

According to the Missouri Department of Public Safety and Statistical Analysis Center one of the biggest deterrents of meth labs is the presence of a Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force, like the Community Narcotics Enforcement Team in Vernon County and several surrounding counties -- task forces made possible through grants such as the MoSMART Grant, which made up to $100,000 per year available to task forces just for the battle against methamphetamine. The CNET group in Vernon County received a little more than $154,000 in MoSMART reimbursements for the combined years of 2009 and 2010 and hopes to receive another $80,000 or so for this year.

According to Peckman, "the only thing you could do with this money was work on meth." Much of the war that the CNET team fights is in the form of those small skirmishes. Much of it is undercover, and much of it is dangerous. Things often happen after dark, in the middle of nowhere and with an enemy that is often unknown and sometimes armed.

Peckman agrees the fight against meth continues, but say's they're making some headway.

"We've slowed it down," said Peckman. "We haven't totally wiped it away, but we've put a damper on it," he said.

Vernon County Prosecutor Lynn M. Ewing said that although the new laws are "having a good impact on the number of clandestine labs," the use of the drug continues. "They're still getting it from somewhere," said Ewing.

Peckman also said that even with the harder-to-find "shake and bake" method, in which the drug is made in a two liter soda bottle, most of the meth in the county is made elsewhere. California and Mexico produce huge quantities of the drug and "we have a pipeline here," from those two areas. Peckman said. Interstate 35 from the south and Interstate 70 from the west make it easy for meth to find its way to the Kansas City metropolitan area and on to Vernon County.

The funding has helped, but Peckman now fears for the future of these particular grants. According to Peckman, the MoSMART money was a pet project of Senator Kit Bond. Now that Bond is retired, Peckman is not sure if the money will still be there to fund the local war on methamphetamine. "I don't know what's going to happen to it next year--there may not be any funding at all," Peckman said.

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