Fewer small meth labs in Kentucky means reduced danger and cleanup costs, but abuse continues

It was common not long ago in Kentucky for people to dump soft-drink bottles and other waste from homemade meth labs beside the road, creating a safety hazard.
It was common not long ago in Kentucky for people to dump soft-drink bottles and other waste from homemade meth labs beside the road, creating a safety hazard. Laurel County Sheriff’s Office

The number of homemade methamphetamine labs found in Kentucky has dropped sharply in the past few years as drug abusers switched to imported meth, reducing the danger and cleanup costs associated with the small labs.

The crude labs are generally plastic drink bottles that people who make meth, called cookers, use to mix the ingredients that produce the drug through a chemical reaction.

That is called the “one-step” or “shake and bake” method.

The number of meth-lab incidents proliferated across the state beginning in about 2000, hitting a high of 1,233 in 2011, according to Kentucky State Police.

The actual number of one-step labs was higher because many incidents involved more than one bottle.

That figure dropped to 339 in 2015, and the final numbers for 2016 might show a further decline, according to state police.

One key factor in the downward trend is the rise of meth smuggled into the country from large labs in Mexico, according to police.

The Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which covers parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia, said in a 2015 report that meth from homemade labs in its territory had gone down, but seizures of the type of meth imported from Mexico jumped 176 percent from 2013 to 2014.

The imported version of the drug is called ice or crystal meth.

“It’s a major shift,” Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said of the switch to imported meth.

Police said meth abuse has not gone down as a result of the transition.

There are benefits, however, including less danger from meth labs to cookers, their children, communities and authorities.

People make meth by mixing substances such as drain cleaner with pills containing an over-the-counter decongestant called pseudoephedrine, creating a chemical reaction.

The one-step meth labs create noxious fumes and can explode, and the waste left behind is considered hazardous, requiring special gear to handle it that adds to cleanup costs.

It was once common in Kentucky to have cases of people making meth with children present, endangering them, and contaminating houses, apartments and hotels with fumes and waste that was expensive to clean up.

The state has seen deaths and burns from meth operations blowing up.

In April 2015, for instance, a man and woman were found dead after a fire in a building in Mercer County that contained a meth lab, police said.

In another case, police found chemicals used to make meth in a Somerset apartment in September 2009 after the man who lived there was blown from the bathroom into an adjoining room and badly burned.

The blast damaged other units in the building.

In one of the more gruesome cases, a 20-month-old Wayne County boy, Kayden Branham, drank drain cleaner from a cup that had been left out after people used the chemical in making meth at the small mobile home where he and his parents were staying.

The drain cleaner contained sulfuric acid. Kayden died of severe internal injuries an hour after drinking it.

The boy’s mother pleaded guilty in connection with his death in a closed juvenile-court proceeding. A jury acquitted his father of a murder charge.

Dr. Lesley Wong, a plastic surgeon who is medical director of the burn unit at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, said that a few years ago, doctors and nurses would sometimes hear “vague, fishy” stories from patients about how they got burned, a possible indication that they’d been involved in making meth.

There’s been a noticeable decline in the number of burn cases that appear to be linked to meth, Wong said.

“We definitely get the impression that there are less,” she said.

The danger to the public and to authorities has gone down because fewer people are cooking meth.

“When you don’t have your neighbor cooking meth, absolutely the danger to the community is less,” said Brandon Curlis, a detective with the state police Drug Enforcement — Special Investigations unit that covers the eastern half of the state.

State and federal lawmakers grappled with how to drive down homemade meth production for years, adopting measures that include electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine sales and limits on the amount of the medicine people can buy.

The laws drove down the number of labs at times, but cookers found ways around them.

For instance, to defeat limits on purchases, meth makers enlist a network of family and friends — who often are addicted to meth — to each buy as much as allowed and then sell them to cookers.

The practice is called smurfing.

In one significant case, 28 people were charged in federal court in 2013 with taking part in a large meth operation centered in the Canada Town area of southern Whitley County.

Some of the defendants admitted that they cooked meth, but several obtained pseudoephedrine for the cooks, according to court documents.

Smurfing also has declined with the increase in imported meth.

Reported pseudoephedrine sales have gone down in recent years, from 796,429 recorded sales from January through October 2013 to 566,463 in the same period this year, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

The 2015 Appalachia HIDTA report said many people who used to cook meth have switched to selling crystal meth smuggled in from Mexico.

Legislative and enforcement barriers to getting meth ingredients played a role in that.

It’s less work and less exposure for traffickers to buy imported meth from wholesalers than to round up ingredients to make it themselves. The large labs outside the country can also make a lot more meth, and it is more pure, police said.

“It was just a whole lot easier to obtain crystal meth” than make it, said Robbie Clark, head of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force.

Kentucky lawmakers tried several times to require people to get a prescription for pseudoephedrine as an attempt to drive down the number of meth labs.

Other states saw dramatic declines in meth labs after requiring prescriptions.

However, an industry group spent then-record amounts of money to beat back the proposals in Kentucky, arguing that requiring a prescription would inconvenience legitimate users.

The legislature eventually approved a version of the bill requiring a prescription, but only after someone had bought 24 grams of pseudoephredine within a year.

Ultimately, the black market helped achieve the goal of reducing homemade meth labs, but meth abuse remains a problem, said Tommy Loving, head of the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force.

“The Mexican cartels gave us that desired result, except we’ve still got the meth,” Loving said. “The bad thing is you’ve got a more pure product that’s probably more addictive.”