Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

TOP STORY >> Fight against meth far from over

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

A celebration in Little Rock Monday over the decline in meth labs across the state could be misleading.

While it is true there are fewer large meth labs in production since a new state law made it difficult to buy over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines like Sudafed, used in making the illegal drug, Arkansas’ war on drugs isn’t over. Local, state and federal officials say it has simply moved to a new front as usage increases.

Several groups and individuals were on hand at the state Capitol Monday to hear Scott Burns, the White House deputy drug czar, praise them for their efforts at eradicating drugs in their areas as well as the new state law that is helping.
“You are doing a good job of reducing the drug use,” Burns said during the ceremony in which certificates were awarded to several community organizations for battling what he called “the singular worst drug we face in America.”

But Burns said that while the amount of meth being manufactured in Arkansas may be dropping, the use of the drug continues to rise because it is being imported from Mexico at alarming rates.

Sheriffs in The Leader’s coverage area, who were not invited to the ceremony, say they saw that trend and others last year and they know drug use is not down despite the new law that took medicines containing pseudoephedrine off shelves, moved them behind pharmacy counters and made them attainable only with a picture ID. Users are now cooking meth for their own use or buying the imported “ice.”

Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson says meth production is down in his county thanks to the hard work of his deputies and the new state law. But now, his evidence room is filled with marijuana from Mexico.

“Marijuana is on the rise, I think, because it’s harder to get meth,” the sheriff said.

Pulaski County has fewer meth labs, according to John Rehrauer, spokesman for the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department. “The numbers have gone down steadily for the last couple of years.”

He said more meth and ice—souped-up meth—is being brought in, much of it from Mexico. “There’s been no drop in usage, and the drug-related arrests in the area are about the same.”

The new law made it difficult to buy enough pseudoephedrine for a large lab, said Lt. Greg Williams who works narcotics for the White County Sheriff’s Department. For a time “ice” (also made from pseudo-ephedrine) from Mexico supplied local users, he said, and as a result, meth lab busts declined dramatically in 2005.

But eventually, the drug cooks overcame their anxiety about showing their identifications to pharmacists and started banding together. Now, by driving from town to town and buying the maximum at any pharmacy that will sell to them, they are able to put together enough pseudoephedrine to make small batches at home, he said. “We don’t find any big labs in the woods anymore,” he said.

At about the same time the local meth cooks overcame their reservations about buying the active ingredient for meth, the Mexican dealers became wary of being caught and stopped selling indiscriminately, Williams said.

Last year, his department busted nine meth labs compared to eight already this year, Williams said as evidence that local meth production is on the rise again.

Burns told those assembled for the Monday ceremony that the federal government will have to take the lead on stopping Mexican ice production.

“We know there are approximately nine companies that make ....ephedrine and there is an obligation by the federal government to try and stop the flow of pseudo-phedrine to Mexico which is being diverted for illegal purposes,” he said.
Burns said U.S. officials “are literally traveling to these nine companies that produce ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and saying, ‘You’re poisoning us.’”

While government does not want to limit the companies’ ability to do business, Burns said, officials do want to have a frank discussion about what is a legitimate amount of the product to ship to Mexico and distribute within the United States.