State renews efforts to reduce meth labs, users

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

ST. CLAIR, Mo. -- For five hours, the two men escaped notice as they bought up blister packs of decongestant pills, two at a time, at stores across suburban St. Louis. But at their last stop -- the 19th of the day -- a suspicious security guard alerted police.

Pulled over 30 miles later in this town of 4,500, the men were soon in handcuffs for having enough pills to make about an ounce of methamphetamine, the illegal and highly addictive stimulant that is better known as crank, crystal or just plain meth.

Their ages, 63 and 50, didn't surprise detective Travis Blankenship. The drug has ravaged the state for more than a decade, ensnaring young and old, businessmen, housewives and families.

"It used to be big news to find a meth cook," said Blankenship of the Franklin County police as he sifted through the bag filled with 38 boxes of pills. "Now everybody is cooking meth."

Missouri has led the country for the past two years in the number of clandestine labs shut down by police. The state also is renewing efforts to clamp down on access to Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine-based products, which are prized by meth cooks because they can be easily transformed into the illicit street drug.

Three communities since December have ordered that stores keep all decongestants with pseudoephedrine as the sole active ingredient behind the counter or in locked cases. And the Missouri Legislature last month passed the nation's most stringent such law, limiting sales of the medicine to two packages per person and requiring that the packages be placed near the checkout counter to prevent theft.

Taking a back seat

Drug companies protested that the laws are a hardship on chronic allergy sufferers. Convenience store owners balked at the government's telling them how to allocate prime retail space. But with jails clogged and the meth problem as bad as ever, lawmakers said drug company profits and convenience had to take a back seat.

"It's just a terrible drug," said state Sen. Anita Yeckel, who got involved with the issue a few years ago after meeting a young sheriff whose lungs were damaged after he accidentally inhaled toxic fumes from a discarded lab. "I don't know of any drug that's as addictive. There are a lot of parents who think this is like cocaine or marijuana. This is worse."

First imported to the region by truckers from large West Coast labs, meth took off in the Midwest and later the Southeast in the mid-1990s when locals began making their own. Illicit manufacturers using home recipes could make the drug cheaply and did not need a middleman to sell to users. That left police without a big boss or a cohesive organization to target. Instead, they had to hunt down dealers and users one at a time.

"It literally spread like contact dermatitis," said Dwayne Nichols, a 30-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who now administers federal money that targets high-activity drug areas throughout the state. "It's like trying to fight a water balloon -- you fight it and it goes somewhere else." The state's rural areas were particularly hard hit. Cooks set up in cheap hotel rooms, back yards and deserted roadsides, and had plenty of woods in which to hide stashes. There was also easy access to anhydrous ammonia, a farm fertilizer that is a key ingredient for meth.

All-consuming hunt

The hunt can be all-consuming. If Dennis Fowler, a sheriff's deputy in Stoddard County in Southeast Missouri, isn't staking out a farm or co-op for fertilizer thieves, he's making arrests with a statewide task force or visiting local stores, reminding them to keep their eyes open.

"Any pill-buying lately?" Fowler asked the clerk at Dollar Discount in Bloomfield, Mo.

"Not since last week," the woman responded.

"Well, give us a call if they come in, and tell us which way they're going," said Fowler, as he left for the next stop.

A short time later, at the trailer of one of Fowler's informants, a man who said he has been a sometime user of meth for a decade explained the drug's allure.

"It makes you feel like Superman," said the man, who did not want his name used. On binges, he would stay up for days or even weeks at a time, he said. While paranoia, also known as "geeking," is common, so are cravings.

"If they have to steal, they'll do it," the man said, sitting next to his wife, also a meth user, in their trailer. "Women will trade sex for drugs. People do what they have to."

A native of Stoddard County, Fowler said few families have escaped meth's wrath. He arrested his own sister and sent his brother-in-law to jail.

It's so destructive, said Associate Circuit Court Judge Joe Satterfield, that addicts must be protected from themselves. That is why he regularly sets bail of at least $100,000 in cash for those arrested on meth-related charges. It's the equivalent of having no bond at all because few can pay. It has prompted some experts to complain that he is misusing his authority and trampling on prisoners' rights, but Satterfield is unfazed by the criticism. He said he is tired of seeing people "bond out," only to be back before him the next week for the same offense.

"It's a tremendous burden on the system," he said. "They forget sex. They forget their kids. When they get out, they go do it again."

And as a result of Satterfield's tough stance, some just move to neighboring jurisdictions such as Butler County. The problem is so severe there that Poplar Bluff, Mo., the county's largest city, was named one of the state's 15 sites to dispose of hazardous waste collected from meth labs.

One prominent defense attorney in Poplar Bluff said that criminal cases account for 75 percent of his practice, and 75 percent of those are meth-related charges. One in four of the divorces he handles involves a case of the husband or wife using meth.

"Why they want to mix a bunch of poisons and inject is beyond me," said Daniel T. Moore, over a lunch of tacos with his best friend, police chief Danny Whiteley.

Whiteley catches them; Moore attempts to get them off. While they differ on whether enforcement methods are effective, they agree that the drug is a burden. "It's taken the criminal justice system and drowned it," Moore said.

And that's why the focus now is on keeping pills out of the hands of drug users.

In St. Peters, the first city to pass a pill ordinance, the measure was taken partly in response to the death last year of a grocery security guard who was smashed against a wall by a pickup truck driven by two people suspected of stealing decongestants.

The St. Louis County police department now has a full-time "pill diversion task force." It has teamed up with large retail chains and small stores to either gain access to their surveillance cameras or get clerks to tip them to suspicious purchases.

The task force -- which includes officers from the state highway patrol and neighboring departments -- has arrested people from as far away as Mississippi driving five hours to try to make purchases in anonymity. Last year, conducting surveillance twice a week, the group made 118 arrests and confiscated 60,000 pills.

Already this year, the task force has made 103 arrests and seized 36,000 pills and six pounds of liquid pseudoephedrine pills that were already "soaking down" in preparation to make the drug. They also seized 21 labs, typically consisting of Pyrex dishes, lithium batteries, liquid ammonia and plenty of toxic sludge from the various chemical reactions.

Despite such numbers, police know they are not catching everyone. Still, they remain optimistic that something -- restricting access to pills, raiding labs, jailing cooks -- will work.

"As time progresses," said St. Louis County police detective Damon Kunnermann, "we're going to put the crunch down on people."

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