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State Bureau of Investigation agents responded to 561 meth labs in North Carolina in 2013.

Photo from North Carolina Department of Justice



Originally published: 2014-01-18 16:11:51
Last modified: 2014-01-18 16:14:00

LAB BUSTS

by Allison Haver

As the number of methamphetamine lab busts continues to increase across North Carolina, Watauga County similarly saw an increase last year.

Tallies released by the State Bureau of Investigation showed that local law enforcement agencies removed from action 16 methamphetamine labs in 2013, a slight rise from the 14 labs discovered the previous year.

It was reported that North Carolina, as a whole, had 561 meth labs in 2013, a pronounced increase from last year's 460.

The increase, according to N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, is due to the technology used by law enforcement in North Carolina during this past year.
 
"Investigators now have at their fingertips information that can help them find and stop dangerous meth labs by tracking buys of the drug's key ingredient," Cooper said.

The counties with the largest number of meth lab busts in 2013 were: Wilkes (50 labs), Onslow (46 labs), Anson (30 labs), Catawba (27 labs), Sampson (27 labs), Gaston (26 labs), Burke (23 labs) and Johnston (22 labs).

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive synthetic stimulant that affects the central nervous system. When used, the illegal drug creates high levels of dopamine in the brain, leading to increased feelings of reward, motivation or euphoria. The key ingredient is pseudoephedrine found in some cold medicines and can be snorted, injected, consumed or smoked.

Long-standing users can experience extreme weight loss, extreme tooth decay, brain damage, anxiety, violent behaviors and paranoia.

Of the meth labs found in 2013, 81 percent used the "one-pot" method, an increase from the 73 percent of the meth labs busted in 2012, Cooper said.
 
Also known as "shake and bake" labs, one-pot meth labs use a small amount of pseudoephedrine to make meth in a plastic soda bottle. These types of labs are more challenging for law enforcement to find than traditional meth labs that are larger and less mobile and are not as easy to conceal.

Through the assistance of the National Precursor Log Exchange, an electronic monitoring system that went into effect in North Carolina on Jan. 1, 2012, SBI agents and local law enforcement have uncovered more labs. NPLEx grants law enforcement access to information about pseudoephedrine purchases helping them to identify likely meth cooks and find more meth labs.

meth labs we otherwise wouldn't know about," Cooper said. "We want to encourage all law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to take advantage of this tool to protect their communities."

Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said that 15 out of the 16 labs found were "one pot" operation.

According to Hagaman, the Boone Police Department and the Watauga County Sheriff's Office narcotics officers use the NPlex system.

"I have been actively involved with a legislative subcommittee and it was during one of those meetings where I learned that one of our narcotics officers leads the state on inquiries utilizing the NPlex system," Hagaman said."NPlex is definitely a valuable tool in successfully tracking and prosecuting methamphetamine and methamphetamine precursor cases."

North Carolina pharmacies also began using NPLEx Jan. 1, 2012. The pharmacies log all purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine through the system, which automatically lets the retailer know if the buyer has reached the legal limit for pseudoephedrine purchases so the store can stop the sale.

According to Cooper, through NPLEx, pharmacies blocked 44,299 purchases, totaling 56,397 boxes last year. There was enough pseudoephedrine in the boxes to have made approximately 280 pounds of methamphetamine, he said.

Boone Drug owner and pharmacist John Stacy said he believes the system is working locally to prevent illegal purchases of meth's key ingredient.
"It takes time with the extra paperwork, but it definitely serves its purpose of keeping track of who all buys what," Stacy said.

The NPLEx system connects North Carolina with 23 states nationwide, including neighboring states, making it harder for meth cooks to skirt the law by crossing state lines or shopping at multiple pharmacies. According the Hagaman, a little more than a year ago, Tennessee authorities stated that approximately 68 percent of their NPLEx logs are from people residing in North Carolina and approximately 68 percent of North Carolina NPLEx logs are from people residing in Tennessee.

In addition to the assistance of new technology, more is being done to prevent methamphetamine abuse. As of Dec. 1, 2013, meth cooks face stiffer sentences under state law if they make meth around children, seniors or the disabled.

According the N.C. Department of Justice, in North Carolina, children have been found living in as many as one out of every four homes where meth is made. Statewide, 86 children and 17 seniors were found living in homes with meth labs that the SBI investigated this past year.

Watauga County Department of Social Services Director Jim Atkinson said the DSS had removed two children from the same residence that contained a meth lab. This is an improvement from the removal of 25 children from their homes for the primary reason of methamphetamine use by the parents, he said.
 
"Tougher laws and new technology are helping, but smaller meth labs continue to pose a threat to safety," Cooper said. "We need more law enforcement along with better public awareness to fight meth labs."

The N.C. Department of Justice emphasizes the dangers of meth labs and warns citizens, for safety reasons, if a meth lab or the remnants of meth production is spotted to call 911 and let law enforcement handle the investigation.