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Spread of meth labs driving surge in busts

Staff Writer

Meth lab busts have recently reached a record high in North Carolina, according to various news media outlets, and local authorities have said Lincoln County is no exception.
Law enforcement destroyed nearly 350 meth labs statewide last year, according to an article from The News & Observer in Raleigh. The numbers prove to be nearly 60 percent higher than what was illegally “cooking” across the state four years earlier.
In addition, North Carolina ranks among the top ten states for meth production. Some states additionally known for their significant amount of meth lab busts in 2011 included South Carolina, Tennessee, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri, which topped the list.
Det. Jason Munday, drug investigator with Lincolnton Police, said methamphetamine activity has increased inside the city limits in recent years.
“I would definitely say meth labs are on the rise here in Lincolnton,” he said. Munday particularly pointed out the frequency of mobile meth labs and the reason behind the illegal substance’s increase.
“It’s become easier to cook meth,” he said, noting how drug users exploit household items to produce labs. He said individuals don’t need “much money, effort, materials, knowledge or room to make” the drug. In addition, “cooks” are teaching other users how to create their own concoctions and “start their own cooks,” Munday said.
Police believe all types of meth labs are dangerous because of the nature of the ingredients.
‘The chemicals are so volatile,” Munday said.
Investigators noted that they’re quite aware of the city’s high occurrence rate of meth labs and regularly receive information and updates on labs through In-Service training. In addition, all officers are trained on the topic during Basic Law Enforcement Training.
“We are definitely aware of the existing problems,” Munday said.
City police have busted a total of five labs in the last year, including one inside a vehicle on North Aspen Street in January and a second lab inside the same suspect’s home a day later. Officers said they found the suspect passed out inside the car and that the lab, created through a method known as “shake-and-bake,” had been “cooking” for nearly a day.
While Sheriff’s Office authorities have found no active labs across the county in the last year, they said they’ve located evidence of at least four, all on the western end.
Narcotics investigators were reluctant to voice the measures they use to locate labs.
“We don’t want to give out our strategies,” Lt. Jason Reid said.
According to Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid, similar increases in meth activity are being seen across his county.
In addition to the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, law enforcement agencies in Newton, Hickory, Conover and Longview have encountered labs first-hand since 2011, bringing the county’s total last year to 10, Sheriff Reid said.
He agreed with Munday that the simplicity of the labs’ cooking method is an attraction for drug users.
“There are fewer steps in the cooking process,” Sheriff Reid said, “and the meth cooker does not need a heat source with the ‘one pot’ cooking method, like they’ve had to use in the past with the ‘Red P’ cooking process.”
With the “Red P” or “Red Phosphorus” method, drug users create their labs by extracting various ingredients from common cold medications.
“Red phosphorus, found in safety matches, flares, smoke bombs and the like, is combined with iodine to make hydriodic acid,” Sheriff Reid said. “That, in turn, is used to reduce the precursor, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, to meth.”
He named a number of other hazardous chemicals that often get thrown into the cooking process. Substances include muratic acid, lye and a variety of flammable solvents, which oftentimes, when mixed with additional lab waste composed of corrosive acids and bases, produce dangerous reactions.
“This method has the potential to produce very toxic phosphine gas if certain solvents are heated with open flames,” he said.
Just miles south of Lincoln County, meth activity is relatively low. When compared to its two neighboring counties, Gaston County has much less methamphetamine activity, authorities said.
“Activity has stayed consistently low over the years,” Capt. C. J. Rosselle, with Gaston County Police, said. Gaston County authorities locate just under two labs a year, he noted, a majority of which have not been the “shake-and-bake” type.
“That’s a newer trend,” Rosselle said.
He believes it’s much easier for people to buy meth that’s been imported into the area rather than “risking cooking their own.”
In addition, authorities believe that a new state law, House Bill 12, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, has discouraged drug users from using the “Red P” method to produce labs. Through the law, pharmacists can track just how many cold medications an individual is buying. For the past seven years, customers have already had to present a photo I.D. when purchasing such items.
State law also requires a cap on the number of pseudoephedrine products that can be purchased at one time. Currently, a person can only purchase two packages (six grams) per store visit or three (nine grams) per month. In addition, pills containing pseudoephedrine must be sold from behind the counter.
Meth labs also have the potential to affect the public, police said, as taxpayers might soon be forced to spend up to $800 for state officials to clean up each lab. Currently, the burden of responsibility falls on the shoulders of individual agencies, Det. Munday said.
The switch in financial responsibility came a couple of years ago, but according to local police, authorities are waiting on the state to once more cover the cost of meth lab cleanup.
“The state’s going to start paying for the cleanup eventually, but they’ve not said for sure,” Munday said.
He noted that when he last spoke with State Bureau of Investigation officials late last year, they said they planned to start footing the bill again sometime this spring.
The Associated Press also contributed to this article.

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