Ten years ago, drug agents often would find methamphetamine labs in the country, far from crowded city streets where the distinct smell would lead to suspicions.
Now, “shake-and-bake” meth labs can fit in a car trunk.
For Lee County Sheriff’s Capt. Van Jackson, meth isn’t a new problem. The drug reached its zenith for use in the mid-1990s in the county, but he’s seen a decrease since 2004.
Still, Jackson called the highly addictive drug the most common illegal substance his deputies encounter on a regular basis, other than marijuana.
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“Once people get into it, it usually takes control of their life,” Jackson said.
Urban vs. rural
The strong, overpowering odor from making meth is what sent manufactures into the country to set up their labs, Jackson said. Those days have since passed, and newer processes of making the drug mean the odor isn’t as strong.
That doesn’t mean that law enforcement doesn’t still find rural labs, though.
“We don’t find them as often, but we do find them from time to time,” Jackson said.
And while meth might be made in the rural parts of a county, that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there, said Phenix City police Chief Ray Smith.
“Even if you’ve got a lab in Seale, it’s headed for the downtown area,” he said.
Jackson and Smith’s offices have similar methods of fighting the drug. Both Russell and Lee counties have urban areas as well as plenty of wide open spaces, and the ways law enforcement battle meth in each aren’t that different.
For Jackson, fighting meth requires what he calls a proactive approach. Deputies are trained in how to identify meth labs and their components.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office also teaches the public about the drug’s dangers and how to spot its warning signs.
The burden of fighting meth doesn’t fall only on the shoulders of law enforcement and the public. Jackson credits the state Legislature for implementing laws regulating the purchase of ingredients used to make meth.
“Due to those efforts, we have seen a nice little punch in preventing people producing methamphetamine,” Jackson said.
Smith said that someone who purchases a meth ingredient, such as cold medicine, must sign their names to a register. Law enforcement can check the logs that pharmacies and other businesses keep. If someone is buying too much, Jackson and Smith said they can expect a visit.
“It may sound intrusive, but it’s making an impact,” Smith said. “Nobody’s buying 15 boxes of it a month for legitimate purposes.”
Checking on who’s buying pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in meth, is an enforcement tactic that works for both urban and rural areas. So is following up on theft reports on items such as anhydrous ammonia, which is used by farmers and also is needed to make the drug.
Garbage in, garbage out
Jackson sees meth as a drug that’s locally produced as well as one that’s trucked into Lee County. Smith sees the same in Russell County. Locally, the drug is made by what Smith calls “mom and pop” operations. Shake and bake “labs” are established locally with no control over the chemical reaction. It’s crude, dangerous and is of poor quality, he said.
“You get everything from poison being created to low quality meth,” Smith added.
If something is moved into the area, it’s typically highly refined crystal meth from Mexico or western states. Sometimes it’s coming to Russell County and other times it’s headed to a distribution hub such as Atlanta, Smith said.
Stopping the drug’s movements can be difficult, but law enforcement tackles it through tracking and drug interdiction. Officers try to identify who’s trafficking meth through intelligence gathering, discovering the techniques drug runners use. Checking pharmacies’ logs can help start the trail to find someone making meth. In some cases, officers can pinpoint a drug runner and follow them to his or her destination.
In addition, keeping officers trained on how to spot the drug helps keep it off the street. Smith said some vehicles are used by traffickers because they have hidden compartments in them. Also, corrosion marks on a vehicle and the tell-tale smell can lead an officer to develop probable cause that can then lead to a search.
Change and the future
As long as law enforcement keeps developing strategies to fight meth, its creators and dealers will keep changing their methods, Smith said.
“It’s a constant education and re-education both for law enforcement and the drug runners,” Smith said.
The change from isolated, country meth labs to the shake-and-bake method of making meth is one evolution law enforcement has had to address. The creation of new laws targeting drug makers is one of government’s methods of combating the drug.
Jackson said the state can now charge someone with chemical endangerment of a child. The felony charge can be levied when someone is accused of making the drug in the presence of a child.
He called the new law “crucial” in fighting the drug.
Prosecuting people in the meth business, and incarcerating them, separates them from the drug, though it doesn’t necessarily cure their addiction. Jackson said a method must be found that helps users overcome their addiction to meth and makes them productive citizens.
“Right now, I can’t say that there’s that many success stories I can tell you about,” he said. “They seem to return to the substance once they’re released.”