Police across the U.S. are struggling with a proliferation of busts for methamphetamine production, fueled by the rise of small but dangerous “one pot” labs.
The increasingly popular technique has largely replaced the kitchen-size meth lab with a single, two-liter soda bottle. Ingredients for a batch can easily be obtained on a single trip to a pharmacy and mixed almost anywhere. One-pot labs aren’t new, but they are spreading just as budget cuts are reducing police forces.
In Christiansburg, Va., the police department is paying thousands of dollars to clean up toxic labs. Police in Tulsa, Okla., have handled 15% more meth-lab busts so far this year than all of last year, at a time when the department is down some 70 officers. Nationally, incidents related to meth production rose above 11,000 last year, after falling sharply to around 6,000 in 2007, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
One-pot operations produce small quantities of meth at a time, law-enforcement officials say, but are toxic and highly explosive, occasionally resulting in fires and deaths. Their small scale makes them especially hard to find and stop, in part because they don’t require enough pseudoephedrine—an essential meth ingredient found in some cold medications—to run afoul of federal purchasing limits.
“They’re small, they’re mobile, they’re easy to hide,” said Cpl. Mike Griffin of the Tulsa Police Department. “As long as pseudoephedrine is available, they’re going to keep growing.”
Methamphetamine, a stimulant whose side effects include tooth loss, skin lesions and brain damage after extended abuse, induces a lengthy euphoria and is highly addictive. Some women take it as a weight-loss drug. But as they chase after one-pot labs,police fear they are neglecting bigger drug-dealing operations involving global cartels and other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
Since Tulsa police found the city’s first one-pot lab in late 2008, lab busts have soared, reaching 315 in 2009. So far this year, police have busted 372 labs, up from 323 in 2010.
DEA data show that the trend is similar elsewhere. In Virginia, for example, the number of labs and related sites discovered by police has been surging. In Indiana, the number last year was up 64% from 2008, at 1,213. The figures include all types of meth labs, but one-pot operations now predominate.
The trend has prompted legislators in some states, including Oklahoma, Michigan and Maine, to propose bills requiring a doctor’s prescription for over-the-counter medicine containing pseudoephedrine. Similar laws have been passed in Oregon and Mississippi, where meth operations dropped sharply afterward.
Drug makers have instead promoted a national tracking network to monitor sales, which they are financing. Seventeen states, including Kentucky, Illinois and Louisiana, have signed up, and Virginia is considering joining.
“We don’t like the fact that law-abiding citizens will be penalized as a result of the actions of a very small minority,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Federal regulations limiting over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine to a few grams a day helped keep larger meth producers in check after the rules took effect in 2006. But producers started scaling down recipes to require just a few packages of cold medicine instead of hundreds.
“As crooks tend to do, they have adapted,” said DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott.
In Vanderburgh County, Ind., small-batch meth cooks have expanded—one recent case involved more than 100 pots, said Lt. Bret Fitzsimmons. Police have busted three times as many labs so far this year as they did in all of 2009. The caseload has grown so much that police had to set aside three investigators, out of a narcotics task force of 20, to work on meth cases full-time.
In Christiansburg, police started paying to clean up one-pot labs after money distributed by the DEA for that purpose was used up quickly this year. The process, which requires a crew specialized in hazardous materials, has absorbed 40% of the department’s $15,000 budget to pay informants, said Lt. Tim Brown. Meth cooks usually don’t accumulate cash or assets that can be confiscated to offset a probe’s costs.
“There’s not a whole lot of money involved,” Lt. Brown said. “Either people manufacture to supply their own habit or to trade for pseudoephedrine.”