Raleigh: Law enforcement in North Carolina used technology last year to uncover a record number of illegal drug labs that make methamphetamine, Attorney General Roy Cooper said today.
“Investigators now have at their fingertips information that can help them find and stop dangerous meth labs by tracking buys of the drug’s key ingredient,” Cooper said.
State Bureau of Investigation agents responded to 561 meth labs in 2013, an increase from 460 labs found in 2012. Of those meth labs, 81 percent used the “one pot” method, portable labs which make small amounts of meth.
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive synthetic illegal drug whose key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, found in some cold medicines.
Also known as “shake and bake” labs, one pot meth labs use a small amount of pseudoephedrine to make meth in a plastic soda bottle. The labs are easy to conceal and move, making them more challenging for law enforcement to find than traditional meth labs that are larger and less mobile.
Tracking purchases of meth’s key ingredient helps uncover more labs
SBI agents and other law enforcement officers in North Carolina have access to information about pseudoephedrine purchases through the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx), helping them to identify likely meth cooks and find more meth labs. More than 400 investigators in North Carolina are now using the database to aid their investigations.
“Technology is leading us to meth labs we otherwise wouldn’t know about,” Cooper said. “We want to encourage all law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to take advantage of this tool to protect their communities.”
North Carolina pharmacies log all purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine through NPLEx. The system also helps block illegal sales of meth’s key ingredient. NPLEx blocked 44,299 purchases in 2013, totaling 56,397 boxes or 146,957 grams of pseudoephedrine – enough pseudoephedrine to have made approximately 280 pounds of methamphetamine.
The NPLEx system connects North Carolina with 23 states nationwide including neighboring states, making it harder for meth cooks to skirt the law by crossing state lines or shopping at multiple pharmacies.
North Carolina pharmacies began using the system January 1, 2012. NPLEx automatically lets pharmacies know if the buyer has reached the legal limit for pseudoephedrine purchases so the store can stop the sale.
State law limits purchases of products that contain pseudoephedrine to no more than two packages at once and no more than three packages within 30 days. Purchasers must show a photo ID and sign a log. All pills containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine are required to be placed behind a pharmacy counter.
A new law that took effect December 1 also makes it a felony for any convicted meth cook or user to possess products containing pseudoephedrine, and the NPLEx system is expected to help law enforcement identify violators.
Meth lab busts by county
Counties in both western and eastern North Carolina saw large numbers of meth labs last year. The North Carolina counties with the largest number of meth lab busts in 2013 were: Wilkes (50 labs), Onslow (46 labs), Anson (30 labs), Catawba (27 labs), Sampson (27 labs), Gaston (26 labs), Burke (23 labs) and Johnston (22 labs).
Onslow, Lincoln, Gaston, Stanly and Sampson counties saw the largest increase in meth labs in 2013 as compared to 2012. Law enforcement and SBI agents also saw a significant increase in the number of meth labs in counties surrounding Charlotte in 2013, including Anson (30 labs), Gaston (26 labs), Union (20 labs), Lincoln (19 labs), Stanly (15 labs) and Rowan (10 labs) counties.
See maps of meth lab busts by county for 2013 and previous years at ncdoj.gov.
Neighboring states continue to struggle with meth labs as well. South Carolina saw meth labs rise from 540 in 2012 to 617 in 2013, while Tennessee saw more than 1,500 labs for the fourth year in a row.
Meth labs endanger children, elderly
Meth labs can cause fires and explosions and produce hazardous fumes and toxic waste. Two people cooking meth were killed last year, one in Charlotte and one in Duplin County, when their labs caught fire.
The labs are especially dangerous to children and seniors. Statewide, 86 children and 17 seniors were found living in homes with meth labs the SBI investigated in 2013. As of December 1, 2013, meth cooks face stiffer sentences under state law if they make meth around children, seniors or the disabled.
Responding to meth labs
The SBI is the only statewide agency in North Carolina whose agents are trained and equipped to dismantle meth labs safely, and it plans to ask legislators for additional agents to keep up with the demand. Seven SBI agents currently work full time responding to meth labs, while other agents work meth labs on top of their full-time assignments.
SBI agents also provide safe disposal of meth lab waste at no cost to local law enforcement. Agents and trained local officers remove, neutralize and package meth lab waste and transport it to one of eight container sites across the state for pickup and destruction by a hazardous waste contractor.
In addition to busting more labs, extra agents would be able to work more long-term investigations and open more investigations using NPLEx.
“Tougher laws and new technology are helping but smaller meth labs continue to pose a threat to safety,” Cooper said. “We need more law enforcement along with better public awareness to fight meth labs.”