Methamphetamine labs found in Washington County doubled from previous year, officials equate statistics to better officer training

Becky Campbell • Jan 15, 2014 at 8:46 PM

The number of methamphetamine labs found in Washington County last year doubled from the previous year. That might sound scary for area residents, but at least one local official believes the statistic doesn’t necessarily mean there has been an increase in area meth labs.

Instead, he says, the larger number of labs reported equates to better officer training.

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office released a report this month indicating meth production remains high, with Tennessee ranking one of the top states for the most meth labs discovered.

The highly addictive drug continues to be a problem here even though the state tracks the sale of pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in making meth, and blocks suspicious purchase attempts of the cold medicine.

Only Missouri had more meth labs uncovered by law enforcement in 2013. Not all of the data for 2013 is available, however, because the report was released before November and December lab finds were recorded.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Doug Gregg documents meth labs found here and, according to his figures, there was a 100 percent increase in the number of meth labs found in 2013 from the number found in 2012.

In 2012, there were 21 meth labs found while the number in 2013 jumped to 42, according to Gregg.

He said officer training to better recognize and look for precursors to meth production on any call they respond to has resulted in the higher number of busts.

Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force, said there are many factors that affect the seizure numbers. One of those, like Gregg said, is the amount of training officers receive.

“We are a central repository for (Tennessee) agency reports,” Farmer said. “We train (officers) for free; we issue $2,000 of equipment for free; we dispatch our response truck to the site for free; we take the waste for free and we reimburse departments to up to three hours overtime for officers.”

For the comptroller’s study that looked at Tennessee’s meth labs compared to labs in other states, statistics came from the El Paso Intelligence Center, which maintains national meth seizure documentation.

Those numbers differ some from the Task Force numbers documenting meth labs in the state.

Farmer said he can’t exactly explain the difference, but he’s certain the Task Force numbers are dead-on based on the number of times a task force clean-up vehicle was sent to a scene.

“(In 2013) we dispatched our trucks to 1,691 meth labs. We have processed more than 21,000 pounds of waste,” he said. One lab incident can result in dozens or even hundreds of actual meth labs, or the one-pot production vessels used to make the drug.

“Many variables affect the seizure numbers,” Farmer said. “When we’re having a training, we look across the state and see where the affected areas are (and) where they’re having a significant number of labs.”

Farmer said in 2013, some areas experienced a spike in the number of labs — Washington County is one example — where there have been few in previous years.

The number of labs has steadily increased in Washington County, from six in 2010 to 40 in 2013.

So despite tracking pseudoephedrine sales through pharmacies, the number of labs discovered here has increased.

Some locations, Farmer said, have seen a decrease in labs as well as pseudoephedrine sales after those local governments passed ordinances requiring a prescription to purchase the decongestant medication.

“We started seeing these city ordinances pop up where there were historically high lab seizures. Franklin County is an example. They reduced meth labs by 69 percent and eliminated smurfing,” Farmer said.

Smurfing is when a meth maker gets other people to go purchase the pseudoephedrine so they don’t draw attention to themselves. Usually the “smurf” is paid in meth, Farmer said.

Several Tennessee counties passed local ordinances requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine purchases, but in December the attorney general said that violates state law.

Two states in the country — Oregon and Mississippi — have prescription-only statutes. According to the comptroller’s study, Oregon continued to have low levels of meth lab incidents while Mississippi saw a decrease in lab incidents in 2012.

Gregg said one of the issues of tracking pseudoephedrine sales is that it isn’t done in real time.

“If I went out to four different pharmacies and bought my limit, the system wouldn’t flag me between the time I go to the first pharmacy and the second pharmacy,” Gregg said.

“They’ve found a way around it and they’re exploiting it to no end,” he said, referring to meth cooks.

The reason the system doesn’t track sales in real time? Money.

“To get it to real time was going to cost an exponential amount of money,” he said.

Of course, the more meth cooks can circumvent the tracking system, the more meth they can cook and that results in a continuation of meth waste being dumped alongside roads.

Gregg said it’s a continuing concern for him, not only as a law enforcement officer but also as a father.

“The labs are always going to be the biggest concern for us, I think, because of the danger to people who aren’t using and aren’t cooking it. It scares me to death thinking a kid walking down the road to a neighbor’s where he plays and kicking a bottle and the bottle explodes,” he said. “I think right now prescription pills are our number one problem. Meth and meth labs are a close number two.”

For more information about the comptroller’s meth study, go to www.comptroller.tn.gov and click on the link to the report.

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