Tenn.: Meth making goes metropolitan
Pam Sohn and Michael Weber, Staff Writers
Hamilton County leads the state in the number of individuals listed on the state's Meth Offender Registry Database and in the number of properties quarantined because of meth contamination.
Meth use and manufacturing, traditionally thought of as rural crimes, are becoming more metropolitan, authorities say.
"The trend is more urban," said Tommy Farmer, a Hamilton County Sheriff's Department lieutenant and the head of the South/East Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force.
While Tennessee leads the nation in the number of illegal meth-manufacturing labs seized during the first six months of this year, Hamilton County has topped the state with seizures made in the past 18 months, records show.
Hamilton and neighboring Marion and Bradley counties since 1999 have tallied about 1,110 lab seizures, nearly 20 percent of the state's total. Now the task force, which has made 70 percent of all the meth lab seizures in the state since its inception in 1999, is expanding.
"We're getting ready to make changes," Lt. Farmer said. "We've gotten federal funding to expand the task force statewide."
Southeast Tennessee has seen a significant increase in Mexican meth-trafficking groups based in Dalton, Ga., according to a statement from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"These groups control much of the methamphetamine distribution in the Chattanooga area," the statement reads.
Lt. Farmer said North Georgia law enforcement officials are working with the task force.
Hamilton County's rise on state meth lists began early in the decade and has grown since, even as the state's overall meth numbers began to fall.
In 2005, Hamilton topped all Tennessee counties for lab seizures and incidents. Now the county also has the state's highest number of meth-contaminated properties in quarantine, according to state records.
In the first five months of this year, Hamilton has tallied the second-highest number of meth lab raids in the state, ceding the No. 1 spot to Grainger County, just north of Knoxville, by just two raids, according to statistics kept by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the South/East Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force.
Meth, a powerfully addictive and illegal stimulant, also is known on the streets as speed, crank, chalk, fire, glass, ice, tweak, uppers and yaba.
Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said Tennessee and Hamilton County may have figured largely in meth production because of location. Chattanooga sits on major commercial transportation routes, and Tennessee is bordered by eight states.
But law enforcement officials also have made it a priority to arrest and prosecute meth makers and users.
"If you're not out looking for labs, you're not going to find any," Mr. Cox said. "So although we may be the highest in the nation for labs seized, we're also leaders in the nation for seizing labs."
Lt. Farmer said the task force received about $1 million a year in federal money for its operations until last year.
In 2005, the group was awarded $1.9 million in state and federal money to expand from East Tennessee into West Tennessee. This year the task force received a total of $4 million -- $1 million to augment its offender database and the rest to expand operations statewide.
Lt. Farmer said the "numbers are good" for seizures and arrests.
"They look bad (from the crime standpoint), but they also are symbolic of the funding and the law enforcement agents out there working," he said.
Lt. Farmer said a 51 percent to 57 percent reduction in local labs in recent years has prompted some Mexican groups to introduce a competing product marketed as "ice," a form of meth said to be stronger than meth made locally.
"Just because there was an increase in seizures doesn't mean there was a drop in the percentage of addicts," Lt. Farmer said.
Under the expanded task force, each grand division of the state -- East, Middle and West Tennessee -- will have a director and a board, Lt. Farmer said. There also will be a state board.
Russ Dedrick, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said he is preparing plans for the boards.
He said Tennessee is a "forerunner" among states with laws regulating the sale of some cold medicines used to make meth and with quarantines and an offender registry.
"And Hamilton County has been in the hot spot," Mr. Dedrick said.
Mr. Dedrick pointed to the federal trial of Joseph Swafford in Chattanooga last March. Mr. Swafford, owner of Broadway Home and Garden near South Broad Street in Chattanooga, was convicted of selling iodine, an ingredient of meth, to people he knew were manufacturing the drug.
He was sentenced last month to 30 years in prison.
Despite Hamilton County's rise, meth seizures in Tennessee are down. Authorities credit the 2005 Meth-free Tennessee Act that implemented the law regulating the sale and purchase of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and requiring meth lab contamination posting and cleanup.
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