Drug czar meets with agents in Charleston

In this photo released by the Guatemalan Presidential Press Office, Director of the National Drug Control Policy R. Gil Kerlikowske speaks during a press conference in Guatemala City, Thursday June 21, 2012. Kerlikowske is on a two-day visit to Guatemala. (AP Photo/Presidential Press Office, Edwin Bercian)

Edwin Bercian

Hardly a week goes by in the Lowcountry without a drugstore being held up for painkillers or another mobile meth lab being discovered in a car or hotel room.

It’s a trend that is troubling law-enforcement officials all over the country, as evidenced by a national conference being held in Charleston this week to address the problem.

About 275 cops, prosecutors, intelligence analysts and chemists from 100 agencies in 40 states and several other countries have signed up for the National Methamphetamine and Pharmaceuticals Initiative’s 2013 Strategy — Training Conference at the Lockwood Marriott Hotel. They are sharing tips and taking comfort in knowing they are not alone in the war.

Those in attendance Tuesday included the nation’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He said he was most encouraged to see so many different agencies working together.

“Especially after 9/11, there was all this criticism that the federal government doesn’t share information (among its own agencies), that people don’t work well together, they’re too concerned about turf,” he said during a brief break. “Well, here you see China, Mexico, you see law-enforcement agencies from the state, the county, the city level and the federal level all equally sharing information, exchanging new ideas, and there’s not the least bit of turf. ... I think from a public-safety standpoint, from a health standpoint and from the use of taxpayer dollars, this makes an awful lot of sense.”

Kerlikowske said he also talked about the prescription-drug problem over lunch with Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen Tuesday, and also met with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

The conference is a reminder of the growing meth problem in South Carolina, Lt. Max Dorsey with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division said between sessions. Agents are especially concerned about the increase in mobile meth labs. Addicts are making meth in soda bottles in cars, parks and motel rooms. Agents call it the “one-pot method.”

“Since 2008, we’ve seen a huge increase in this method of manufacturing,” Dorsey said. “This is the most popular manufacturing method in our state.”

SLED busted 538 meth labs — most of them mobile labs — around the state last year. That was more than double the 267 meth-lab busts in 2011.

The number of soda-bottle meth labs took off after laws were passed that limited how much of the decongestant pseudoephedrine somebody can buy at a drugstore, since that’s one of the ingredients used to make meth.

Addicts got around that obstacle by hiring others — SLED agents call them smurfers — to go to drugstores and get as many boxes of the ingredient as they could, then bring the boxes back to the meth maker, Dorsey said. Usually the payment is cash for the decongestant and a promise of some of the meth.

A law introduced by state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, hopes to break up that racket by making pseudoephedrine a controlled substance so people would need a prescription to buy it. It would make life more inconvenient for sinus sufferers, but everybody is already inconvenienced when a meth lab has to be decontaminated next door, he said. Meth making is also highly explosive and dangerous.

Oregon and Mississippi saw their meth busts drop significantly after passing similar laws, Dorsey said.

“This isn’t just a criminal-justice problem,” he said. “This is an issue that affects our economy, our environment, our children, our health-care system.”