States Confront Rising Meth Use and Production
By Bennett Clark, Staff Writer
With methamphetamine use on the rise nationwide, states are working to confront unique problems associated with production of the illegal substance and social ills such as addiction and child neglect that tend to result from its use.
Making meth is easy but dangerous. Its key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, a chemical found in over-the-counter cold medicines like Sudafed. Anyone with cold tablets and a few other ingredientsiodine and lithium from a battery, for examplecan prepare meth without any special equipment.
The various methods of "cooking" meth leave behind five to ten pounds of poisonous gases and fluids for every pound of the drug they yield. Children exposed to the fumes can suffer chemical burns, respiratory damage, and suffocation. And mistakes can cause explosions and fires.
In one high-profile case, fumes from a home meth lab killed a sleeping eight year old boy in Arizona. Three other children burned to death in a 1996 fire set off by an explosion in a home meth lab in Southern California. The latter case was one of the first to draw widespread attention to the dangers of small-scale meth manufacturing.
Small-scale meth labs have been proliferating exponentially in recent years, especially in the central and western parts of the country. According to the Denver Post, meth lab seizures in Colorado went from 25 in 1997 to 452 in 2001. It said the statistics are just as dramatic at the national level, where lab seizures rose 2,779 percent between 1992 and 2001, from 288 to 8,290.
State legislators have responded with laws that stiffen the penalties for making the drug, especially near children. Some examples:
- A Missouri law passed this summer makes the production of meth within 2000 feet of a school a felony.
- In December 2002, the Colorado legislature passed a suite of laws designed to crack down on meth production, including a measure that classifies cooking meth in a home with children as felony child abuse. Another of the Colorado laws gives new powers to the state's child services system, making it easier for social workers to remove children from homes where meth is made.
- A recent Illinois law eliminates the prospect of reduced sentences for those caught with the ingredients to make meth.
States are also trying to curb meth manufacturing by restricting access to its ingredients. In addition to tougher penalties for cooking meth, Missouri, the state with the highest per capita number of meth labs, now requires retailers to keep medicines with pseudoephedrine in a controlled part of the store, usually behind the counter.
The state has also set a cap on how much of those medicines a store can sell at once. For example, Missouri cold sufferers can buy just two packs of Sudafed in the same trip to the drug store.
The Iowa legislature recently rejected a similar law, according to Dale Woolery, Associate Director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy. Woolery said that retailers, concerned about the costs associated with repositioning products, as well as losing business to stores in neighboring states, led the opposition.
Rural areas of the country have had to deal with meth makers who lack the scruples even to pay for their raw materials. Anhydrous ammonia, a common fertilizer stored in large tanks on farms, is also a key ingredient in one of the most popular meth recipes. To stop thieves from stealing fertilizer, the Iowa drug policy office has begun distributing valve locks to farmers throughout the state.
While legislators wrestle with the most effective way to crack down on meth production, state agencies are straining to treat meth addicts. Those familiar with the drug's effects often claim users need a full year of continuous treatment to stand a chance of staying sober.
"Drug treatment in Arkansas is still linked to 28-day programs," said Arkansas State Rep. Jan Judy, D-Fayetteville, who has sponsored legislation targeting the meth problem. "And we all know that 28 days is not enough for meth. . . With the new drugs, they've got to change the model."
More intensive treatment programs carry higher price tags, though, and states are struggling to pay for them. In Arkansas, "the money [for drug and alcohol abuse treatment] runs out way before the year runs out," said Rep. Judy. The state has raised the cost of the mandatory classes taken by DWI offenders as a stopgap measure.
The spread of meth use has forced South Dakota to turn to triage when providing treatment for addicts. According to Gilbert Sudbeck, director of the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, South Dakota now has to "prioritize who we'll serve." To receive treatment for addiction, a South Dakotan must have an income below a certain level. Within that income group, pregnant women, intravenous drug users, and those "medically impacted" by their addiction get priority.
Threats to public safety associated with meth labs appear to be the most immediate concern for states where abuse has not yet reached epidemic proportions. For example, the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services held a state-level meeting in June to plan a response to the rising number of labs in the state.
According to Stacey Frohnapfel Hasson, the department's director of communications, state officials used the meeting to develop plans for educating citizens and "first responders" about how to recognize the labs and dismantle them safely.
"Usage has not been much of a concern in Ohio, but we know that with the increase in labs we're going to get more of it," she said.