Politics & Government

Meth lab discoveries at all-time high in state

Kentucky is on track to record more than 1,000 illegal methamphetamine labs in 2010, despite years of escalating efforts to control production and abuse of the highly addictive drug.

That would be the most labs ever found in the state.

That record is certain to help drive debate in the 2011 legislative session about a proposal to require a prescription for the cold and allergy drug that addicts and traffickers use to make meth.

"That's going to probably be a very controversial bill if the pharmaceutical companies are not happy with it," said the sponsor, state Rep. Linda Belcher, a Democrat from Bullitt County.

That's probably a given, Belcher said.

Police found 111 meth labs in October, the most ever in any single month, Kentucky State Police reported Wednesday.

As of Nov. 23, police had found 919 meth labs in the state.

That's already more than the 741 found last year — which was a record — and this year's final number will likely top 1,000, state police said.

The number of labs is up because people have found ways to evade restrictions on purchases of an ingredient needed to make meth, and because they have found simpler ways to convert that ingredient to meth in small, homemade labs, police say.

The ingredient at issue is pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines.

Meth "cookers" amass piles of pills that contain the drug, then use a chemical process that involves toxic substances such as drain cleaner to convert the pseudoephedrine to meth in labs often fashioned from plastic bottles.

Each small lab doesn't produce much meth, so cookers create more labs, said Tommy Loving, director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force.

There are limits on how much pseudoephedrine a person can buy in a month, and Kentucky has an electronic tracking system that pharmacists have used to block thousands of attempts to buy more than the legal limit.

However, that system has not driven down the number of meth labs in the state.

Meth makers are increasingly circumventing the limits with a tactic called "smurfing" — getting a number of people to buy their limit of pills containing pseudoephedrine and turn them over to the cooker.

The smurfers get paid in cash or meth.

The National Methamphetamine and Pharmaceuticals Initiative, made up of police and prosecutors, says smurfing is at "epidemic proportions" across the country.

The tactic is helping drive the spike in meth labs in Kentucky, Loving said.

"That's not going to stop until we eliminate smurfing," Loving said.

The best way to do that is to require a prescription for medication containing pseudoephedrine, Loving said.

He and other supporters of that move point to Oregon as an example.

Oregon was the first state to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, beginning in 2006.

This year, Mississippi became the second state with a similar requirement.

Oregon had far more meth labs than Kentucky at one point — 587 to 175 in 2001, for instance.

But the rule requiring a prescription for products containing pseudoephedrine has wiped out meth labs in Oregon, said Rob Bovett, a prosecutor there who wrote the state's law.

Only five small meth labs have been found in Oregon this year, Bovett said.

There has been a corresponding, significant drop in abuse of meth and in crime, he said.

"We're seeing meth driven down, down, down," Bovett said.

Police would like to cut the number of meth labs in Kentucky not only because they feed drug abuse, but because the labs can blow up or expose children, cookers and police to noxious fumes, and because used-up labs are hazardous waste, costly to clean up.

A prescription was required for pseudoephedrine before 1976, when Congress changed the law.

However, the Consumer Products Healthcare Association, which represents makers of over-the-counter medications, opposes requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine.

Among other things, the industry group argues that requiring prescriptions would mean inconvenience and higher costs because people would have to get prescriptions from doctors for common cold and allergy medicines such as Sudafed.

The association spent $307,777 on lobbying in the 2010 legislative session in Kentucky against bills that would have placed additional restrictions on obtaining pseudoephedrine.

That was more than any other group spent during the session.

Belcher, who sponsored a bill the association lobbied against, said she got calls from people who said they'd been told she was trying to get rid of all cold and allergy medicine. That was not correct, she said.

In reality, the bill she has pre-filed for the 2011 session would require a prescription for pills containing the drug. A prescription would not be needed for gel caps, because those can't be converted to meth, Belcher said.

Belcher said she doesn't think requiring a prescription for the pills would cause a big problem for consumers.

The Oregon Alliance for Drug Endangered Children says Oregon's law did not cause major inconvenience for consumers or drive up state Medicaid costs. Many people simply switched to cold and allergy medicine without pseudoephedrine, according to the alliance.

Even if there is some inconvenience, however, it would be worth it to combat the harm meth does to addicts and families and the costs it imposes on taxpayers, Belcher said.

"I think we may have to deal with a small amount of inconvenience to get rid of this problem," Belcher said. "It's a horrible drug."

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