GREG LACOUR- The number of methamphetamine labs raided by N.C. law enforcement has leveled off after several years of sharp rises -- a sign, state and local officials say, that anti-meth measures are working.Demand for the drug is as high as ever, officials say, but police agencies know more about the problem and pursue it more aggressively.
And they believe that new state laws, particularly anticipation of one that restricts the sales of cold medicine -- a key ingredient in manufacturing meth -- have dented a drug trade they had feared would overwhelm the state.
"We've made a concerted effort in North Carolina to find and destroy meth labs," state Attorney General Roy Cooper told the Observer.
"We know these factors are making a difference."
The number of meth lab raids in North Carolina evened out last year at 320, nearly the same as the 322 raided in 2004, according to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
In the last few years, the number of raids has risen dramatically each year, beginning with 34 in 2001 and rising to 98 in 2002 and 177 in 2003.
Officials admit, though, that it's hard to gauge how much difference the new laws have made, whether they're responsible for all of the leveling in lab busts or just part of it.
Other factors come into play: The ability of some meth manufacturers, or cookers, to hide labs; a rise in finished meth smuggled into the state; and the lack of similar laws in South Carolina, which makes it easy for cookers to cross the state line and buy the ingredients
The new N.C. law restricts the sale of certain kinds of cold medicine that contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth component. The law won't take effect until Jan. 15, Cooper said, but many N.C. retailers have started following it. That means cookers are struggling to obtain large amounts of pseudoephedrine.
"It's just another pain in the butt for pharmacists, in a business that already has more pains in the butt than you can imagine," said Carl Craddock, who's owned Metroview Pharmacy on Randolph Road in Charlotte for 28 years. "But it is the responsible thing to do, so we're doing it."
Down from the mountains
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug that began to bleed into the N.C. mountains about five years ago from Tennessee.It's especially dangerous because users can prepare it easily with readily available ingredients. Meth produces toxic fumes and byproducts and causes respiratory and other health problems for chronic users.
Recently, the meth trade has shown signs of moving from the mountains into the foothills and Piedmont. Mountainous Burke County, for example, had five fewer busts in 2005 than in 2004.
"I think it's 100 percent due to the new legislation," said Burke Sheriff John McDevitt. "Everybody's already gearing up for it. I think that's going to have a huge effect."
But Mecklenburg County had six more busts, up from one in 2004. It's a natural progression, echoed in other states, for meth use to start in remote rural areas and gradually make its way to cities, said Capt. Bruce Bellamy, the head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Vice and Narcotics Unit.
Also, Charlotte's growth has virtually guaranteed that some meth cookers and users from elsewhere have taken up residence in the city.
Other states have cut significantly into their lab bust totals by restricting access to pseudoephedrine. Cooper said the new N.C. law was modeled on similar laws in Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- where the number of busts were cut in half or more after their laws took effect.
Such laws generally work, as long as they're accompanied by genuine cooperation among law enforcement, social service agencies, treatment centers and businesspeople, said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Dodging the law
Still, officials said, drug users tend to find ways to circumvent the law.
Van Shaw, the head of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation's Clandestine Lab Unit, said law enforcement officials statewide hear from users that smugglers increasingly ship finished meth into North Carolina from so-called "superlabs" in Texas, California and Mexico.
Buying finished product cuts the risk of detection, Shaw said. The SBI has no hard meth-smuggling data. But Cooper's office hopes to have a meth trafficking task force of federal, state and local authorities in place by spring.
Still, some cookers have mastered the art of hiding labs. Meth took hold in the N.C. mountains in part because they offer so many secluded, hard-to-reach spots. Of the 320 labs the SBI responded to last year, Shaw said, 15 to 20 percent showed signs that the cookers tried to hide it.
Agents have discovered labs 100 yards deep in the woods behind houses, and, at others, components concealed in camouflaged beer coolers, Shaw said. The discoveries lead him to believe more exist than his agents are finding.
They also can't be sure how many people are crossing into South Carolina, buying cold medicine in bulk and returning to North Carolina to cook.
A bill to restrict cold medicine sales is expected to pass the S.C. House of Representatives early this year, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association. The organization hopes it will take effect by 2007.
N.C. law enforcement must adjust to all the changes as the meth trade transforms itself, Shaw said.
"Are we finding all the labs that are out there? No. We know that," he said. "That's always been the trend: Everywhere we put pressure, they come up with different ways to get it. That's always the cat-and-mouse game in drug enforcement."
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