Meth manufacturing in decline one year after law’s passage

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The manufacture of methamphetamines by amateur cooks in theSouthwest Mississippi Narcotics Enforcement Unit’s jurisdiction isdown significantly a year after a law targeting source materialstook effect, according to task force agents.

State lawmakers passed a controversial law that took effect July1, 2005, that limited the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrineproducts, which is needed to manufacture meth. Specifically, thelaw limited the number of packages that could be purchased at onetime and within a certain time period.

The law also placed over-the-counter drugs containing thosechemicals behind counters or in locked display cases, where clerksrequire a photo ID to provide them to customers.

“The Legislature did a remarkable thing with the law,” said JohnDouglas, SMNEU deputy commander. “A lot of other ingredients orchemicals used in the reactions to produce meth can be substituted.The one thing that cannot be substituted is the ephedrine. We’veseen a great decline in the number of clandestine labs since thelaw took effect.”

SMNEU agents logged more than 80 instances of meth labs from2004 to July 2005 in Copiah, Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties,Douglas said.

Some were active, others were only remnants. Even the remnants,however, are toxic and require highly-trained agents to dispose ofthe materials.

Since the law took effect last July, however, the number of labsfound has dropped to less than five, Douglas said.

Copiah County left the task force during that time, which wouldhave some effect on the statistics, he said.

“That is an unbelievable drop, and the only explanation I cancome up with is that the law works,” Douglas said. “There’s alsothe trickle down effect. Not only have we seen less clandestinelabs, but I haven’t heard of a lot of these farmers having theproblems with the theft of anhydrous ammonia that we’ve seen in thepast.”

Anhydrous ammonia or dry ice is used as a catalyst by amateurcooks in the manufacture of meth from ephedrine products.

Controversy surrounded approval of the law because customersobjected to the inconvenience and drug companies and retailersworried the law would adversely affect the sale of theirproducts.

Henry Dawkins, a pharmacist at Super D Drugs, said sale of theproducts has certainly declined in the past year, but so haveshoplifting thefts of the products. He said he supports the lawbecause ephedrine products, which are commonly used for colds,fevers and other symptoms of illness, are now being used for theirintended purpose.

At many drug stores in Brookhaven, the ephedrine products arekept behind the counter in the pharmacy.

Customers must present a photo ID and sign for the drugs. Otherdrug outlets keep the products in a locked display case and requirethe assistance of a clerk to purchase.

“I think it’s a good thing because the photo ID is not scaringoff the honest customers,” Dawkins said. “It only stops those whohave other plans” for the product.

In fact, because the law is not only found in Mississippi butalso a handful of other states, Super D Drugs has instituted anationwide computer tracking system to log sales of ephedrineproducts at its stores.

Dawkins said the system has allowed him to turn away severalpotential abusers of the drug. In one case, the customer hadpurchased several packages of an ephedrine product only hoursbefore at a store in McComb.

Retailers are encouraged to report those instances to the properauthorities, Douglas said.

“Law enforcement officers keeping in touch with the community isstill our best tool for enforcement,” he said. “We get quite a fewcalls from retailers when they become suspicious of a sale. It maybe a hassle for people in a hurry or an inconvenience, but thatsmall hassle is well worth the result. This law works.”

The demise of clandestine meth labs in the region has allowedtask force agents and law enforcement officials in police andsheriff departments to concentrate on other drug activities,Douglas said. Prescription fraud and crack cocaine have become theforemost drug-related crimes targeted by narcotics agents now,Douglas said.

“What the law did for us was to return the time we spent workingon meth labs to do other types of drug enforcement,” he said.”There’s plenty of other stuff to keep us busy.”