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By Rose Hoban
State law enforcement agents busted more people cooking up methamphetamine in North Carolina last year, and so far, they’re on track to discover and clean up even more meth labs in 2012. Law enforcement officials dismantled more meth labs in January and the beginning of February than in a similar time period last year.
“We had 344 meth lab incidents in 2011, that’s a 46 percent increase over 2010,” said Van Shaw, a special agent from the State Bureau of Investigation at a legislative committee meeting examining the issue of methamphetamine abuse yesterday.
According to Shaw, SBI and local law enforcement agents found labs in 68 of North Carolina’s 100 counties last year, with the most meth labs in Burke County, where law enforcement agents broke up 34.
Shaw cited North Carolina’s recent participation in the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx system, with helping law enforcement officials identify people who seek to buy large quantities of the over-the-counter cold medicine Sudafed. Sudafed contains pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of making meth.
The state’s participation in the NPLEx system was authorized by the General Assembly last year and came online Jan 1.
NPLEx allows pharmacists to see when someone attempts to buy large quantities of pseudoephedrine in more than a dozen states, including South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. The system notifies pharmacists when a buyer has reached a daily or monthly limit of pseudoephedrine purchases, and pharmacists receive a ‘stop sale’ notice. There is an override of the system, however, if the pharmacist feels he or she is in danger during the transaction.
“Ninety-nine percent of all pharmacies in North Carolina that sell Sudafed are now on the NPLEx system,” Shaw said. He noted a small number of pharmacies that supply hospitals or nursing homes and do not sell to the public account for most of the pharmacies not participating.
“It seems to be working well,” Shaw told lawmakers. “We have law enforcement online using the tool and we think it’s exceeding expectations.”
Shaw said the system had prevented more than 7,000 boxes of Sudafed from being sold in January, totaling close to 15,000 grams of pseudoephedrine.
According to a report prepared by the SBI, two factors are driving the increase in meth labs in North Carolina.
In the past, people manufacturing methamphetamine made larger quantities of the drug at an established location. But SBI agents have found more people using a portable ‘one-pot’ method, where all ingredients are mixed and cooked together in one container, to make smaller amounts of methamphetamine. Ingredients can also be put into a 2 liter plastic bottle and shaken to mix up the drug, frequently causing an explosion that injures the maker.
“We have also seen an increase in explosions and fires related to meth labs,” Shaw said. “And we get back anecdotal evidence back from emergency departments that some burn patients admit they were cooking meth in a lab.”
“We’ve also seen an increase of injuries of law enforcement personnel,” Shaw reported. “There’s been a 55 percent increase over the last year, with inhalation being the most common injury.”
The second driver behind the increase in meth manufacture is the practice of several people traveling together from one pharmacy to another, each purchasing the daily maximum of pseudoephedrine and then pooling all of the drug for manufacture, according to the SBI report.
Shaw said more than 85 percent of arrests in western counties were for one-pot manufacture, and the practice is spreading in the eastern part of the state.
Committee members say their next task will be to tweak state statute to alter daily and monthly maximums of allowable pseudoephedrine purchases to bring those amounts in line with federal law. They also indicated they would investigate laws around cleaning up former meth labs, and consider sponsoring more aggressive education about methamphetamine addiction.