Panel hears good, bad news on meth

A new law is already slowing sales of a key ingredient in meth. But as lab busts rise, lawmakers are looking for other ways to curb the dangerous drug.

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Laura Leslie

A new law policing sales of a key ingredient in methamphetamine hasn’t even taken effect yet. But it’s already showing signs of success, according to testimony today at the House Select Committee on Methamphetamine Abuse.

House Bill 12 requires all pharmacies in North Carolina to run the ID of every pseudoephedrine customer through the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx. It’s a national database that tracks sales of the drug to any one individual from store to store and even across state lines. If the customer has already bought his or her limit of the drug – 3.6 grams per day or 9 grams per month - the system sends a stop message to block the sale.

The new law takes effect January 1st , but about half the state’s pharmacies are already using the database. Andy Ellen with the NC Retail Merchants Association told a House study committee today that over the past 30 days, the system blocked 2,834 transactions totaling 7,500 grams of pseudoephedrine in North Carolina alone.

Ellen says that number is likely to rise after Wal-Mart joins the system this week.

Co-chairman Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) is hopeful the new system will curb meth production. “The tougher it is to get that material that they have to have, then that will cut back on a lot of it, I believe.”

But Rep. Tom Murry (R-Wake), a pharmacist himself, was skeptical about the compliance rate. About 40 percent of pharmacies haven’t yet registered with the database. Murry says the national system isn’t compatible with many stores’ point-of-sale systems, including his.

Murry encouraged the committee members to “go out and buy some Sudafed now – at multiple places. And then do it again in January, and see if there’s a difference.”

Labs booming

Meantime, the number of meth labs in the state appears to be rising rapidly. SBI Special Agent Todd Duke told the committee 317 meth labs have been busted this year as of today. That’s compared to 235 for all of last year - and it’s already above the projected number of 300 for 2011.

The rise in busts can be partly attributed to more enforcement, but it’s also due to more labs in more places, thanks to the new “one-pot” method of manufacturing the drug. SBI officials say 85 to 90 percent of the labs being busted west of Burlington are one-pots, and the technique is moving rapidly into the eastern part of the state.

Special Agent Ann Hamlin said a one-pot or “shake and bake” lab is smaller and more mobile than older meth labs – it’s just a bottle with a tight cap that can be loosened to release pressure. It takes about 2 boxes of pseudoephedrine to cook up one sports-drink bottle, along with a caustic, ammonium nitrate, camp fuel, and some lithium batteries.

Hamlin said one-pots, being small, are more suited to producing meth for an individual user than for large-scale sales. But they’re also more prone to spontaneous combustion than traditional labs, and because most individual users don’t have much experience making meth, they’re more dangerous.

Cleaning up

Lawmakers also heard about problems with decontamination of houses or other areas contaminated by meth labs.

Marilyn Parker with the Division of Public Health said meth, especially when cooked, permeates drywall, carpet, HVAC systems, appliances, and even the internal structure of a building. While there are regulations governing how to clean up after a lab, there’s no national standard for what “clean” means – that is, what constitutes a safe trace amount of the toxic chemical after the clean-up.

North Carolina law doesn’t require local health department to test a cleaned-up dwelling to verify that it’s safe, even when the owner does the cleanup instead of calling a decontamination service. Property owners aren’t required to tell tenants about the problem. And renting out a dwelling that is unsafe due to meth contamination is only a misdemeanor offense.

Committee members were surprised to hear those things. “We’ve got to have something that someone can sign off on – ‘Yes, it’s safe,’” said Rep. Joe Tolson.

Parker agreed that some requirement for verification of cleanup “would be a plus.”

The committee could recommend legislation to require that, said Faircloth, as well as other changes to slow the spread of the drug and to protect the public from its effects.

“I wish we could stop it, but I don’t think that can happen,” Faircloth said. “But we can try to get ahead of the curve.”


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