Watauga meth lab totals fall in '12
by Kellen Moore
As meth lab busts reached a new high in North Carolina last year, Watauga County actually fell in the notorious ranking to 10th in the state.
Tallies released Tuesday by the State Bureau of Investigation showed that law enforcement agencies busted 14 methamphetamine labs in Watauga County in 2012, an improvement from the 22 labs found the previous year.
Meanwhile, the state as a whole located a record 460 meth labs, an increase of one-third from the previous year.
The counties with the most meth lab busts were: Wilkes (59), Wayne (27), Catawba (26), Burke (24) and Anson (21).
Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that creates high levels of dopamine in the brain, leading to increased feelings of reward, motivation or euphoria. The white crystalline powder can be consumed, shorted, injected or smoked.
Long-term use of the highly addictive drug can lead to extreme weight loss, extreme tooth decay, anxiety, violent behavior or paranoia, including hallucinations such as the sensation of insects crawling under the skin.
Types of labs
Approximately 73 percent of the meth labs busted in 2012 used the “one-pot” method, according to Attorney General Roy Cooper. Also called “shake-and-bake,” the method allows criminals to quickly cook meth in a plastic soda bottle as opposed to a larger and more time-consuming setup.
Sheriff Len Hagaman said he believes about 80 percent of the meth labs seized locally were “one-pot” labs.
In some cases, meth labs can cause fires and explosions or produce fumes and toxic waste.
“Meth labs may be getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that they’re any less dangerous,” Cooper said. “If you see a potential meth lab — and it could be something as simple as a plastic soda bottle and some tubing — report it to local law enforcement right away.”
In the last several years, volunteer groups cleaning up roadsides have found a couple of “shake and bake” labs that had been tossed out of vehicles, Hagaman said.
Risk to children
Children are also among the innocent victims that can be affected by methamphetamine abuse. Statewide, 120 children were removed from homes where meth was being manufactured last year, up from 82 the previous year. Children who are around meth labs often suffer from exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as abuse and neglect.
Director Jim Atkinson said the Watauga County Department of Social Services did not remove any children directly from an operating meth lab in 2012, but the office removed about 25 children from their homes for the primary reason of methamphetamine use by the parents.
In other cases, methamphetamine use was a secondary factor that played in to a child’s removal, he said.
“Methamphetamine, historically from our experience, is a drug in which parents will give up everything they’ve got in order to keep doing it,” Atkinson said.
Pharmacies on alert
Part of the reason for the drug’s prevalence is that it can be made with common materials such as battery acid, lighter fluid, household chemicals and pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in some cold medicines.
A new electronic monitoring system called the National Precursor Log Exchange went into effect in North Carolina on Jan. 1, 2012, in an effort to help block illegal sales of pseudoephedrine.
The system logs purchases of the medicines in numerous U.S. states, making it more difficult to purchase from multiple pharmacies or cross state lines to buy the precursors. A buyer must present a photo ID and sign a log, and NPLEx automatically notifies a retailer if the purchaser has already reached the monthly sale limit.
Pharmacies blocked about 54,000 purchases — more than 66,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine — last year, according to Cooper. The amount of pseudoephedrine blocked could have been used to make 277 pounds of meth, he said.
Since the system was introduced, the number of customers being denied sales has gradually fallen at Boone Drug, owner and pharmacist John Stacy said. He said he believed the system was working locally to reduce the amount of pseudoephedrine entering buyers’ hands illegally.
“Of course, it has been a headache, a lot more paperwork, but overall I think it accomplished its purpose and probably is still accomplishing its purpose,” Stacy said.
Asking for help
Cooper is asking legislators for five more SBI agents to respond to meth labs. Five SBI agents currently work full-time responding to meth labs, two fewer than in 2007 due to state budget cuts.
To help meet the workload, the SBI has trained other local agents throughout the state to assist in the dismantling and disposal of meth labs.
Under a program launched in March 2012, the trained officers remove, neutralize and transport meth lab waste to one of eight container sites across the state for pickup and destruction.
Several narcotics officers with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office have been trained, but they often still must wait on SBI chemists to arrive before they can perform their work, Hagaman said.
“That’s the kicker with the state: they don’t have enough chemists to go out into the field and do these kind of things,” he said.
Several neighboring states also noted increases in meth lab busts in 2012, according to national data. Tennessee, with about 3 million fewer people than North Carolina, found 1,808 meth labs last year — a 7 percent increase. South Carolina saw 540 meth labs, or a 40 percent increase, while Virginia saw 276 labs, a 25 percent increase.