Portable Meth Lab
Meth lab to go: new 'one pot' techniques of cooking methamphetamine allow for 'labs' to be contained in a cooler. Image courtesy of Advanced Environmental Options, Inc.

By Rose Hoban

Law enforcement officers broke up 168 methamphetamine labs in the first three months of 2012, marking the most aggressive first quarter for enforcement in a decade.

A new law went into effect on Jan 1 that allows for electronic tracking of who buys pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient for making methamphetamine, almost instantly. Officials say the new capability has allowed police and sheriffs’ departments to find and arrest people who are cooking meth more quickly.

“Based on current lab seizures, we’ve prevented between 1,932 ounces and 4,704 ounces of meth that could have been manufactured, had they gone undetected,” Special Agent Van Shaw from the State Bureau of Investigation told a legislative committee Tuesday afternoon.

Clandestine Lab Responses, Q1 2012, Map courtesy of NC State Bureau of Investigation

North Carolina has had laws limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine, that can be bought at any one time since 2006. The law also limits the total amount one person can buy in a 30 day period.

Pseudoephedrine is commonly included in over the counter cold medications such as Sudafed, Dimetapp, Chlor-Trimeton and others.

Purchases were tracked using a paper-based method. But in January, North Carolina joined a growing number of states electronically tracking the sale of pseudoephedrine-containing drugs, using the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) system. Twenty-one states, including Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina are also part of the system.

When a customer buys a cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, a clerk enters the customer’s information into the NPLEx system, and gets notification within a few seconds if the customer is over the daily, or monthly, limit. If that’s the case, the sale is denied. The system also flags people who repeatedly buy the monthly maximum.

Both Federal and North Carolina laws limit total purchases of pseudoephedrine to 3 grams in a given day, and 9 grams in a 30 day period.

“A law enforcement officer sitting in a car in the parking lot of a drug store can ‘see’ the sale inside (of pseudoephedrine) almost immediately,” said Jim Acquisto, a representative of the company that operates the NPLEx system.

“Police officers say they can beat the guy home… before he can turn it into meth,” Acquisto told the committee.

Acquisto said the system also keeps track of how much a person might have bought in neighboring states.

“The federal limits on pseudoephedrine stretch across state lines,” he said. “Any measure must be multi-state capable, otherwise the bad guys will go to the next state, and there’s no way to track those users.”

When asked by lawmakers why January, February and March yielded so many arrests for methamphetamine, Acquisto said, “Folks are now getting caught. These people are already making meth. You’re just finding a larger percentage of them.”

New methods, new problems

Shaw told lawmakers that laws limiting pseudoephedrine purchases have reduced the number of big ‘labs’. Now, he said people are manufacturing smaller amounts of the drug using a ‘one pot’ method, where all the ingredients are mixed together at once.

But smaller is more dangerous. An investigation by the Associated Press several months ago found an uptick in admissions to burn units as a result of addicts using the one pot method for cooking meth. The investigation found that nationwide, about one-third of burn unit patients were admitted because burns they got while cooking the drug.

“A cook mixes all the chemicals into one pot. It leads to violent reactions, explosions, fires… primarily because of lithium that’s used in the process,” said David Hitchens, head of Advanced Environmental Options, a company that does cleanup of meth labs in North and South Carolina.

Hitchens also said the method is portable, so some people are cooking meth in their cars, then throwing the residue out of the window.

“Last year, some prisoners were cleaning up on the side of the road, they found a bottle, called over the guard. They opened the bottle and all three ended up in the hospital,” he said.

Between 5-7 pounds of residue gets created for every pound of meth made, according to Hitchens, and he said cleanup can cost thousands to homeowners.

Tweaks to the law

Lawmakers agreed to send some some small changes to North Carolina’s pseudoephedrine tracking law to the larger General Assembly for consideration during next month’s session.

One change would eliminate the system that requires people buying  cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine to sign a paper form.

Rep Tom Murry (R-Morrisville ), a pharmacist, said that it would be a ‘dramatic’ paperwork reduction for pharmacists to put the signature into electronic form. Pharmacies would be required to have a restrictions posted on the wall, instead of each customer receiving a copy.

The other change would adjust language around limiting purchases of pseudoephedrine to one package per day, which Murry said pharmacists and customers found confusing.

The committee’s work is not done, according to Rep Craig Horn (R-Weddington).  He said the committee has a two year mandate, and he plans to tackle thornier issues during the next legislative interim, including a proposal to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

“It’s the one thing I keep harping on,” said Horn who supports the move.

Only two states, Oregon and Mississippi have prescription-only pseudoephedrine on their books. The issue has been the subject of lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry.

“I would have loved to push some more ideas through,” Horn said “But these are two things that we can realistically expect to accomplish during the short session.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...