published Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Meth labs roll on throughout Tennessee despite tracking

Pseudoephedrine, commonly used in nasal decongestants, is a key ingredient in
making methamphetamine.
Pseudoephedrine, commonly used in nasal decongestants, is a key ingredient in making methamphetamine.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Southeast Tennessee ranks high in lab seizures

According to 2012 data, some Southeast Tennessee counties were among those with high numbers of lab incidents compared to other parts of the state.

1) Anderson County (130)

2) Hamilton County (85)

3) Shelby County (76)

4) Putnam County (66)

5) Warren County (63)

6) McMinn County (62)

7) Bradley County (61)

8) Coffee County (60)

9) Campbell County (52)

10) Carter (50)

11) Dyer County (47)

12) Sullivan County (44)

13) Meigs County (35)

14) Morgan County (34)

15) Rhea County (31)

Source: 2014 Follow-up Report: Methamphetamine Production in Tennessee

Methamphetamine production remains high throughout Tennessee despite the use of a database that tracks pseudoephedrine purchases, according to a report issued Friday by the state comptroller's Offices of Education Research and Accountability.

"Meth labs are still a significant issue," said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.

The report, requested by state lawmakers, comes just days before the General Assembly will convene. It could provide additional ammunition for legislators who want to move forward on a proposed bill that would require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in some cold and allergy medicines that meth cooks use to make the illegal stimulant.

To date, 18 Tennessee municipalities have passed ordinances requiring a prescription for products with pseudoephedrine, according to the report. But the ordinances were made moot in December after the state attorney general's office ruled they were at odds with state law.

The 23-page report released Friday states that the impact of the ordinances is unclear because there wasn't enough data available. However, some members of law enforcement, including Farmer, counted fewer lab seizures -- from seven to eight per day before the ordinances to four to five a day.

In Franklin County, Winchester Police Chief Dennis Young noted that after city leaders adopted a prescription ordinance, lab seizures in the first six months of the year fell from 14 to seven, year over year.

Statewide, even though lab seizures fell by 7 percent for 2013, Tennessee still ranked second in the nation after Indiana, Farmer said, citing preliminary figures for 2013.

In 2013, a total of 1,685 labs were seized, which generated 21,000 pounds of meth drug waste, according to figures.

Farmer is hopeful the bill may pass now that more information is available in the report.

"Any objective information that can help our legislators make an informed decision is good," he said.

In Southeast Tennessee, Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth has supported a prescription requirement, saying the number of labs would decrease if it was harder for meth cooks to get pseudoephedrine.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the interests of companies that manufacture and market over-the-counter drugs, claimed that levels of lab seizures correlate to efforts of law enforcement -- not to the amount of pseudoephedrine sold, according to the report.

Critics of returning pseudoephedrine to a prescription include local lawmakers, who staged a news conference in November with Consumer Healthcare Products as part of an anti-smurfing campaign. Smurfing is when someone purchases pseudoephedrine for a meth cook.

Lawmakers stated they would vote down any bill that requires a prescription for the drug.

Rep. Eric Watson R-Cleveland, who is seeking to unseat Ruth for the sheriff's position, said requiring a prescription would make it difficult for law-abiding people to get cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

Farmer said the database, the National Precursor Log Exchange, shows only about 700,000 state residents purchased pseudoephedrine.

"Eighty-five percent of Tennesseans don't even buy these products. They're not even affected," he said.

In the meantime, federal funding used to clean up meth labs has dried up, according to the report. The state's federal funds earmarked for cleanups are mostly exhausted this fiscal year. The state is now depending on $1 million saved from last year for those efforts.

"One of the things that helped us was those lab numbers went down ... and DEA picked up a lot of our costs," Farmer said.

However, it's possible smaller agencies will be affected by the federal funds drying up. Members of law enforcement have to undergo specialized training to collect evidence at meth labs.

"What we're afraid of and what we've seen, is that if they don't have the resources ... they may not be as aggressive," Farmer said. "Ultimately, they're going to do it. They're going to do their job. They'll just have to eat their costs. It's kind of like any budget. Don't be out there looking for it."

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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