Missouri is on pace to lead the nation again with a potentially record-setting number of meth lab seizures in 2012, though narcotics officers say the distinction would have been even more dubious if not for new prescription mandates on a key ingredient of the highly addictive and dangerous drug.
Methamphetamine labs seized by law enforcement hit 1,250 by Sept. 1, according to statistics released by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. With four months of data remaining to collect, Missouri was the only state to hit quadruple digits, with 315 more busts than second-place Tennessee and an almost certainty of surpassing last year's 2,096 total.
"The problem's everywhere," said Sgt. Mark McClendon, head of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force, one of 11 such narcotics units across the state. "Whether it's the ease of manufacturing or whatever, we're on track to be right back where we were last year. It's frustrating to see we're always at number one for something like that."
Still, McClendon and others say the number-one ranking belies the fact that methamphetamine may be on the decline compared to easier-to-get drugs such as prescription pills. Not only that, they said, the overall lab seizure numbers in the state would have been even higher if not for the recent anti-meth law adopted by several Missouri communities. Such laws require a prescription for common allergy and cold pills -- formerly purchased over the counter -- that contain pseudoephedrine, a requirement for making meth.
The theory seems to be supported by a glimpse at a map that shows the meth lab totals by county. Some counties, including Cape Girardeau, did see their meth numbers dip. St. Louis County has been reluctant to enact such legislation, and nearby Jefferson County has the largest number of seizures in the state at 212.
But in areas where, or near, the ordinanaces have passed, have seen declines, including in Southeast Missouri.
As of Sept. 1, Cape Girardeau County had 17 lab seizures, down from 25 over the same period last year on its way to 40. Scott County has had 12 busts so far this year, down from 25 through Sept. 1, 2011, and its yearly total of 31.
And Perry and Bollinger counties each reported no lab seizures through Sept. 1, a seemingly bright spot erased by the fact that each saw only one meth lab bust last year. Others also explain the lack of lab seizures to a lack of manpower and funding rather than proof of fewer meth-makers.
Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf, who is seeking re-election in November, said that while meth is still a problem in his county, the demand has diminished for the white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder that can be snorted, smoked or injected. A yearlong undercover operation in Perry County has netted several arrests for marijuana and cocaine, but not many for methamphetamine.
"We still get a little bit of it from time to time," Schaaf said. "But it's not as bad as it used to be. Right now, the worst thing we're seeing is prescription pills. They're so easy to get fewer people are wanting to go to the trouble of making meth."
Schaaf and others credit the prescription mandate.
McClendon noted that 24 communities in his 11-county coverage area, from Arnold to Steele, have adopted ordinances that require people to have a prescription for the common cold or allergy pills used to make meth. In this region, Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Perryville, Scott City and Sikeston all require prescriptions.
One of McClendon's task force agents, Mike Alford, covers Cape Girardeau, Perry and Bollinger counties. He agrees that meth is not the problem it once was and credits requiring prescriptions for meds such as Sudafed. Alford and others would like to see it become a state law. Missouri legislators have made several attempts to pass such a bill, without success.
Besides, Alford said, saying Missouri is number one for meth is a bit misleading. Missouri doesn't produce more meth than any other state, according to Alford. California and its so-called "super labs" produce much more. In Missouri, there are simply more of the clandestine, smaller labs that Alford said are dangerous for those who have to deal with them.
While they're called labs, they're essentially a concoction of thrown-together chemicals and equipment that, when combined, create fire and explosion hazards.
"We essentially have little bombs all over the state," Alford said.
And the number of labs that are seized in Missouri aren't the only way that the drug is brought into the state. The labs here produce the so-called "shake-and-bake" meth, made with equipment found at most hardware stores and come in powder form. Meth known as "ice" is being imported from Mexico and accounts for as much as 80 percent of the meth sold here, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Regardless of how great, no one debates that methamphetamine is still a problem. And none liked the fact that Missouri had more meth labs to seize than any other state, though some attribute the high numbers to diligent law enforcement.
"It's not a bragging rights thing for us," Alford said. "Every one of us wishes our labs were zero."