Surge in meth labs traced to new small-batch production

Four years ago, new laws regulating the sale of pseudoephedrine in pharmacies slowed the illegal production of methamphetamine. The chemical compound commonly found in over-the-counter cold medication is a fundamental ingredient in the production of the illegal drug.

But a new method for cooking meth has emerged over the past year, threatening to increase the number of “mom and pop” labs at a moment when demand for the drug is high.

“It definitely is on the rise, and I think you can see that in the numbers,” said Special Agent Lee Tritt of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.

In 2009, the SBI busted 206 meth labs across the state, compared to 195 labs in 2008 and 157 labs in 2007.

Tritt, who grew up in Sylva, is part of a five-person tactical team charged with dismantling and evaluating clandestine meth labs across the state. Last month, he and other agents took apart a large-scale lab in the Ellijay area of Macon County at the residence of Pamela and David Holland.

It was the fourth such lab discovered in Macon County since the new laws governing the sale of pseudoephedrine took effect in January 2006.

Meth is made by cooking a concoction of household cleaners and over-the-counter medicines. Meth labs peaked in North Carolina in 2005, with 328 labs discovered that year. The number of labs dropped significantly the next year when the new law was passed. Specifically, the law required anyone buying pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to show a photo ID and sign a log book. The law limits buyers to no more than three packages within 30 days from a single location.

But Tritt said the rise of “shake and bake” meth labs, which only use one pot and are highly mobile, has shifted the battle lines during the past year. Now big labs aren’t the primary targets, because anyone with a kitchen can be cooking. And a large quantity of the ingredients are no longer necessary to make a batch.

“Shake and bake is primarily the method we’re seeing in Western North Carolina,” Tritt said.

SBI agents first encountered shake and bake labs in North Carolina around July 2009 in the eastern part of the state. Shake and bake labs have since moved west. The shake and bake process is fast, easy to set up, and produces little waste or evidence for the cook to dispose of.

Meanwhile, the method also requires less pseudoephedrine and yields a cleaner final product.

“It used to take more to cook with,” Tritt said. “Now they can literally cook with one box.”

Tritt has processed more than 300 labs since he began this work in 2003, and he is adamant that if there is one rule to meth production, it’s that it has no boundaries.

“In the western part of the state it could be anywhere. It’s not a rural or an urban thing. It’s everywhere,” Tritt said.

Around 30 percent of all meth labs that SBI agents have responded to so far this year have been shake and bake labs.

With cooking methods readily accessible on the Internet, N.C. Department of Justice spokesperson Noelle Talley said she expects the practice to grow.

“We expect the popularity of shake and bake labs to rise as the method becomes better known throughout the meth production community,” Talley said.

Detective Rick Buchanan of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office investigates drug cases. Buchanan said the poor economy always increases the incidence of drug crime.

“Things are getting worse all over, and I think the economy has a lot to do with it,” Buchanan said. “When the economy is down, our business goes up.”

Buchanan said while the majority of the meth used in his jurisdiction still comes from Mexico, the shake and bake labs have changed the landscape because of what they produce.

“We’ve got labs in Western North Carolina, but a lot of our drugs are still imported,” Buchanan said. “The reason we’re seeing the influx in labs is related to the quality of the dope that’s being imported.”

According to Buchanan meth producers using shake and bake techniques produce products with extremely high levels of purity, while the quality of Mexican meth has declined in response to tougher laws there.

For investigators like Buchanan, the ravages of meth usage go beyond the individual horror stories of physical deterioration and mania. Addiction to the drug increases the rate of child abuse and domestic violence in the household. He said small-scale meth producers have nothing in common with the moonshiners of yesteryear.

“These people have two things in mind,” Buchanan said. “They’re making it to get high, and they’re making it to make money to get more stuff. It’s not like they’re doing it for their families to get by.”

Buchanan said investigators still rely on tips from citizens as the most reliable way to identify meth dealers and producers. Jackson County does not keep track of meth arrests separately, but in 2009 the sheriff’s office recorded 101 felony drug arrests and 52 misdemeanor arrests. Already in 2010 — only halfway through the year — the office has recorded 79 drug felony arrests and 81 misdemeanors, numbers that reflect an increase in drug activity.

For Buchanan, that means finding new ways to put the squeeze on meth producers, whether they’re using one pot or a basement worth of chemicals.

“It has no boundaries. It could be 200 feet from where we’re sitting, or it could be in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Buchanan said.

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