(RALEIGH) -- Meth lab busts in North Carolina reached a new high in 2012 as a simpler method for making small amounts of the drug spread statewide. At the same time, electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine buys is helping stop illegal sales and leading law enforcement to more meth labs, Attorney General Roy Cooper told reporters Tuesday.
“Prevention efforts have helped hold down the number of larger meth labs but small ones are still very dangerous,” Cooper said. “We need more law enforcement, better public awareness, and continued use of technology to fight this crime.”
State Bureau of Investigation agents responded to 460 meth labs in 2012, compared to 344 meth labs in 2011 and 235 labs in 2010. Approximately 73 percent of the meth labs busted in 2012 used the “one pot” method. One pot labs, also known as shake and bake labs, make smaller amounts of meth than previously seen larger meth labs. Criminals can cook meth in a plastic soda bottle using a small amount of pseudoephedrine, the illegal drug’s key ingredient found in cold medicine.
A new electronic system that tracks purchases of pseudoephedrine is helping to block illegal sales of that key ingredient and lead law enforcement to meth labs, Cooper said. Approximately 54,000 purchases, a total of more than 66,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine, were blocked last year in North Carolina by pharmacies using the system, called the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx). The amount of pseudoephedrine blocked could have been used to make 277 pounds of meth.
Making it harder to get the key ingredient has prevented an increase in the number of larger labs and has forced some criminals to use the one pot method.
The North Carolina counties with the most meth lab busts in 2012 were: Wilkes (59 labs), Wayne (27 labs), Catawba (26 labs); Burke (24 labs); and Anson (21 labs). Wilkes, Catawba, Cleveland, Onslow and Surry counties saw the largest increase in meth labs compared to 2011.
Law enforcement and SBI agents discovered more labs this year in urban and suburban areas, as shown by the increase in meth labs found in counties such as Wake (6 labs), Guilford (5 labs), Forsyth (4 meth labs), Buncombe (6 meth labs) and the greater Charlotte area (13 labs in Union County, 7 in Gaston County) compared to previous years.
Almost all labs found in urban and suburban areas were one pot meth labs, agents said. First seen by law enforcement in North Carolina in 2009, the one-pot labs are now found across the state. The process is fast, highly mobile, and produces little waste or evidence for the cook to dispose of, though it remains deadly.
“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.”
Meth labs can cause fires and explosions, as well as produce hazardous fumes and toxic waste.
The labs are especially dangerous to children. 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.
Several neighboring states also saw increases in meth labs in 2012, according to national data. Tennessee, with approximately 3 million fewer people than North Carolina, saw 1,808 meth labs in 2012, a 7 percent increase. South Carolina, with less than half of North Carolina’s population, saw 540 meth labs, a 40 percent increase, and Virginia saw 276 labs, a 25 percent increase.
The NPLEx system now connects North Carolina with these three neighboring states and 20 others nationwide, making it harder for meth cooks to skirt the law by crossing state lines or shopping at multiple pharmacies.
North Carolina pharmacies began using the system January 1, 2012 to log all purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine, and nearly all pharmacies are now participating in the program. NPLEx automatically lets the retailer know if the buyer has reached the legal limit for pseudoephedrine purchases so the store can stop the sale.
North Carolina law limits purchases of products that contain pseudoephedrine to no more than two packages at once and no more than three packages within 30 days. Purchasers must show a photo ID and sign a log. The law also requires that all pills containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine be placed behind a pharmacy counter.
SBI agents and other officers also analyze information from NPLEx to identify potential suspects based on purchasing patterns or repeated attempts to make illegal buys.
“Technology is making it harder for meth makers to evade detection, and easier for law enforcement to find them,” Cooper said. “We need more agents using these tools to fight back against the surge in meth labs."
Cooper is asking legislators for five more SBI agents to respond to meth labs. In addition to busting more labs, the added agents would expand investigations into meth manufacturing and distribution.
The SBI is the only agency in North Carolina with agents who are specially trained and equipped to dismantle meth labs safely. Five SBI agents currently work full-time responding to meth labs, two fewer agents than in 2007 due to state budget cuts. To meet the increased work load, the SBI has trained other agents throughout the state to assist in the dismantling and disposal of meth labs on top of their full-time assignments.
SBI agents also provide safe disposal of meth lab waste at no cost to local law enforcement. Under the program launched last March, SBI agents and trained local officers remove, neutralize and package meth lab waste and SBI agents then transport it to one of eight container sites across the state for pickup and destruction by a hazardous waste contractor.