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New tools escalate NC's battle against meth

Posted October 18, 2011 3:40 p.m. EDT
Updated October 18, 2011 6:28 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina lawmakers studying new ways to discourage production and use of methamphetamine met Tuesday for the first time.  A House committee heard reports on meth abuse and the means that users have found to circumvent existing laws.

John Emerson, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in North Carolina, told lawmakers that the number of meth operations in the state dropped dramatically in 2005 after a law went into effect limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine a person could buy and requiring a photo ID for such a purchase. Meth makers use the cold medicine in their mixtures.

In recent years, meth has again begun to boom, Emerson said, as people have found ways around the law.

"We call it ‘smurfing,’” he said. “They go to multiple pharmacies buying pseudoephedrine, and there's no way to keep track as they go from pharmacy to pharmacy. The other way is to use false identification.”

Beginning next year, North Carolina retailers will be required to enter pseudoephedrine customers into a national database. The database will reject the sale if the person has bought more pseudoephedrine than legally allowed, even if it was purchased at different stores or in different states. 

Statewide, 271 labs have been found this year, many in rural areas.

"We're typically seeing about one meth lab a day. So, we anticipate it to be around 300 or over 300 by the end of the year," State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Van Shaw said.

Meth makers have also started using a new method. Instead of meth labs with wires and tubing, makers are putting all of the ingredients into a single container, like an iced tea bottle or 2-liter soda bottle, and shaking it up. The contents are under pressure.

"It's more mobile. It's a little more volatile, and we've seen a number of fires as a result of explosions associated with it," Shaw said.

Authorities said the bottles are just as toxic as a full meth lab. Because they are often used in vehicles, the bottles end up being tossed out of the window.

"An organization like the Boy Scouts or some local group decides to help clean up this roadside. They come along, they pick up this bottle (and) they're instantly affected by this incredibly toxic substance,” said committee co-chair Rep. Craig Horn of Union County.

Horn said the state's goal should be to get rid of meth — not just jail people who make it.

If the law to register purchase does not stall the meth spread, Horn said lawmakers could consider making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug again for the first time since 1976.