An acrid tang of chemicals clung to a cloud of white smoke drifting from a Moncks Corner home as a team of Berkeley County sheriff’s deputies approached the front door.
Neighbors had complained of a suspicious smell coming from the house. After getting a whiff of the sour odor and smoke on this June day, deputies had no doubt what they would find inside: an active lab brewing methamphetamine.
Ten to 15 years ago, such a find would have been a rarity, a story that might lead the nightly news. Not anymore.
Meth labs have spread like kudzu across the South as addicts and cooks have embraced faster, more mobile methods of cooking the addictive stimulant.
With a soda bottle and some readily accessible ingredients, addicts are making meth in cars, parks, motel rooms, boats and a host of other places using the so-called “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method.
“It’s volatile and it’s dangerous, and it’s moved like a plague from the west to the east,” said Berkeley County Sheriff’s Lt. Bruce Ashe, a narcotics unit supervisor.
The Carolinas have seen meth lab seizures climb by the hundreds in the past few years. Georgia has almost burned through its cash reserves for cleaning up clandestine labs, and Kentucky officials found 160 “one-pot” labs at a single wooded site back in May.
Leading the pack, however, is Tennessee, which is on pace to meet or exceed its record total of 2,082 meth labs, set in 2010. The Volunteer State spends an estimated $1.6 billion annually addressing its meth problem, taking into account expenses such as the cost of law enforcement, lab cleanup and foster care for children of addicts, said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force.
“The cost is staggering,” he said. “It’s turned our world upside down.”
A better way?
State and federal laws seeking to track and limit the sale of the decongestant pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth, have had mixed success across the region. That’s because meth cooks got around the obstacle by hiring other addicts — narcotics investigators call them “smurfs” — to travel around buying as much of the drug as they can, authorities said.
Farmer is among Tennessee officials pushing for the state to adopt legislation that would require a prescription for the purchase of pseudoephedrine, returning the drug to its status before the Food and Drug Administration made it an over-the-counter medicine in 1976.
S.C. Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, has pushed similar legislation in the Palmetto State, so far unsuccessfully.
He and Farmer both have run into stiff opposition from drug industry lobbyists and folks who worry the measure would hinder their access to cold and allergy medicines such as Sudafed and Mucinex.
“It’s an unnecessary burden on families and also on the health care system at large,” said Elizabeth Funderburk, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which runs the “Stop Meth, Not Meds” campaign.
Oregon made pseudoephedrine prescription-only in 2006 and Mississippi followed suit four years later. Both report seeing dramatic reductions in meth labs as a result.
In Mississippi, the number of meth lab seizures dropped 70 percent in the year after the prescription-only law was adopted, and the number of children placed in foster care as a result of meth labs declined 81 percent, according to a report released in January by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Lt. Eddie Hawkins, methamphetamine program coordinator for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, said his state shut down 692 meth labs in 2009, the year before the law passed. By comparison, only four active labs have been found in the state this year — a change he credits to pseudoephedrine’s prescription status.
“You can’t argue with the numbers,” Hawkins said. “Our agents were working meth labs every single day, and that’s all they could focus their attention on. Now, they’re not doing that. Now, we can focus on other things that need attention.”
A heavy toll
Methamphetamine has been around since the dawn of the 20th century, and goes by many street names: meth, crystal meth, ice, crank, speed and hillbilly heroin. It’s a stimulant that works by boosting the neurotransmitter dopamine, leading to an intense euphoria in users.
“It’s a pretty tremendous high, but it doesn’t last for a long time, so it requires the user to do a lot of dosing,” said Steven W. Donaldson, treatment director at the Charleston Center, an addiction treatment facility. “That causes a person to become more highly addicted faster.”
The Charleston Center has not seen the wave of meth addicts seeking treatment that some had anticipated when “one-pot” cooking made its way across the mountains, into the Upstate and on to the coast. Last year, just 16 meth addicts sought treatment at the center, Donaldson said.
Elsewhere, however, the toll has been staggering.
Some 1,625 children in Tennessee were removed from meth lab homes from January 2007 through December 2011 and placed in foster care, at a cost of about $70.1 million, according to the GAO study. Some 1,400 homes across the state are under quarantine due to meth contamination.
A recent check of patients at the Vanderbilt Burn Center in Nashville found that a third of the patients had been admitted for meth-related burns, Farmer, of the state’s meth task force, said. Many of those are indigent patients who require long-term care, leading to millions of dollars in health care costs being passed on to taxpayers, he said.
“It just costs a tremendous amount of money to deal with this issue,” Farmer said. “We’re really at the breaking point.”
Small cooks, big woes
For many folks, the mention of meth labs conjures up images of outlaw bikers cooking up drugs in the desert or the deranged chemist Walter White character on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” television series.
Most of the meth supply today comes from Mexican drug cartels smuggling the drug across the border and moving it through a sophisticated network of distribution routes. But enterprising drug abusers and small-scale cooks remain a thorn in the side of local and state law enforcement authorities, brewing batches with mobile equipment that can be stuffed in a backpack for transport.
In South Carolina, the State Law Enforcement Division last year busted 538 meth labs — most of them mobile. That was more than double the 267 meth-lab busts in 2011. By comparison, SLED dealt with 26 clandestine labs in 2007.
“They are a huge problem – one of the biggest problems we have in our state,” said Lt. Max Dorsey of South Carolina’s SLED.
“They are a ticking time bomb that can cause destruction to property, the environment, the health care system, the economy and the criminal justice system.”
The common cold remedies ephedrine or pseudoephedrine are the active ingredients in meth, but most everything else that goes into a meth brew is toxic. Recipes for meth include fertilizers, brake cleaner, rubbing alcohol, drain cleaner, lithium from batteries, camping fuel, gun oil and lye.
The concoction is highly volatile and dangerous while being brewed, authorities said.
Earlier this month, a Clermont, Fla., couple were jailed after a fire broke out while they were allegedly cooking meth in their home with their children inside. A week earlier, Louisiana authorities busted a man accused of operating a meth lab that exploded at his home in the town of Amite.
Closer to home, a fireball exploded in May 2012 in a Goose Creek apartment where two men had been cooking meth, destroying the two-story building and killing three people, including a 4-year-old boy.
The two cooks are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in federal court in April to making meth.
Even when labs are found before problems erupt, they can take lots of hours and money to safely dismantle and clean up, law enforcement officials said.
In South Carolina, for example, meth lab cleanups have cost taxpayers more than $2 million since July 1, 2011, Dorsey said.
Georgia has shut down some 250 meth labs since February of last year, and the expense of cleaning up that mess has become a burden for the state.
After the federal Drug Enforcement Administration stopped paying for the cleanups in 2011, the state won grant money to defray the cost, but Georgia has since spent that appropriation and much of three supplemental awards — more than $700,000 in a year-and-a-half’s time, said Inspector Chris Hosey, who oversees drug enforcement at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“You want to sit back and hope it gets better and that people stop doing this,” he said.
“But after being involved in it for the last 10 years or so, my opinion is that it is getting progressively worse. And without funding in place to dispose of these labs, the burden is going to fall back on the local agencies.
Hawkins, of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, said he thinks the problem could be solved once and for all if Congress passed legislation requiring a prescription in all states for pseudoephedrine. It wouldn’t eliminate meth addiction, but it would stop cooks and their “smurfs” from hopping borders to buy the decongestant in places where it’s easily obtained.
For example, Tennessee’s pseudoephedrine sales to Mississippi residents doubled in the year after Mississippi passed its prescription-only law, Farmer said.
“If we could make this a controlled substance nationally, it would solve our problem overnight,” Hawkins said. “You could solve it with the stroke of a pen.”
Funderburk, of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said the trade-off would be punishing some 18 million people who depend on products like Sudafed for cold and allergy relief.
The association maintains that the best options remain keeping the medication behind a counter, tracking its sales and — as is done in 29 states — automatically blocking sales when a buyer exceeds his limit, Funderburk said. That stops illegal sales before they happen, she said.
Funderburk pointed to a recent report showing that Alabama reported a 35 percent drop in meth lab seizures in the past year after adopting an electronic tracking system for pseudoephedrine.
“Requiring prescriptions costs consumers time and money, and we don’t want to force Mom and Dad to have to take time off from work to get a prescription for medicine their families rely upon,” she said.
Farmer, of Tennessee, doesn’t buy that argument. He maintains that the change would be a minor inconvenience to solve a major problem.
If folks don’t want to get a doctor’s note, then they can choose from dozens of other decongestants that don’t contain pseudoephedrine, he said.
“We don’t have to guess anymore,” he said. “We know what the proven solution is, and shame on us if we don’t do it now.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.