Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

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October 22, 2011

Meth Misery

The cost of ignoring the pseudoephedrine issue

GLASGOW — Barren County and Kentucky have achieved some high rankings recently of which citizens can rightfully be proud – one of the best 100 communities for youth, No. 1 state in the nation in educational improvements – but some statistics are not good news for the commonwealth or the county.

Kentucky ranked fourth-highest in the nation for methamphetamine lab incidents in 2010 and Barren was fourth-highest county in the state.

Last year, 1,080 meth lab incidents broke the record as the highest ever in the state. Only three

other states, all bordering Kentucky, had higher numbers, 2,082 in Tennessee, 1,960 in Missouri and 1,346 in Indiana.

Kentucky is in the middle of a meth epidemic, according to Shannon White, Barren County’s hazardous materials coordinator, and the latest method of manufacturing meth is causing “one-step misery.”

The most common way of making the drug now locally is called the “shake and bake” method. Criminals use two-liter and 20-ounce plastic drink bottles as small, portable labs for mixing ingredients and containing the chemical process that changes the over-the-counter nasal decongestant medication pseudoephedrine into meth.

White conducts meth awareness workshops for the public to try to make people aware of the danger and pervasiveness of meth labs in the county.

The shake and bake labs can be set up anywhere. No neighborhood, business or area is safe anymore from the spread of meth makers. Law enforcement officers have found the labs in barns, storage units, vacant structures, apartment buildings, homes, businesses, cars, camp-ers, trailers and campsites.

White told participants at a workshop on Oct. 15 about a person who had a shake and bake lab in a bag in a local store and was “burping it” or partially unscrewing the lid to release the gases building up in the bottle. The fumes being let out could have been inhaled by other customers walking nearby.

While statistics include the number of incidents, the number of labs is actually much higher. Dozens of the shake and bake labs can be found at one time, but they all count as one incident. Eighteen pages of paperwork are required to be completed for each incident, according to White. And local law enforcement agencies are responding to meth labs almost every day.

“I was late getting here this morning because someone found a bottle on the side of the road that was smoking,” White told his workshop audience.

It takes eight to nine hours to deal with one small lab. They have to clean up the site, neutralize the chemicals, overpack the remnants, transport everything to Bowling Green or Columbia and complete the paperwork.

If a lab is discovered on a person’s property, including rental property, the owner is responsible for clean-up costs. For Tier 1 sites, the lowest level of contamination, it costs between $2,000 and $5,000. Most insurance does not cover haz-mat incidents unless there is a rider on the policy. And the owner cannot rent, lease or sell the property until it is has been inspected and certified to meet clean-up standards.

Some properties are exempt from the strict standards such as uninhabited outbuildings and barns. But so are hotels, motels and bed & breakfasts. By law, these structures do not have to meet the same standards for cleanup. As a matter of fact, the establishments don’t even have to notify guests that the rooms they are staying in were once used as meth labs, according to White.

Clean-up expense is only a small part of the cost to communities.

Dr. William Smock, University of Louisville Hospital’s professor of emergency medicine, explained in a video presentation that meth use costs millions of dollars for initial health care of indigent patients. Taxpayers foot the bill for all of it. That amount doesn’t include the expenses incurred from future health problems.

Long-term exposure can lead to liver and kidney damage, neurological problems, along with the increased risk of cancer and death.

“Everything in a meth lab is a carcinogen,” he said.

Why does meth continue to be such a problem in Barren County and Kentucky even though legislation has been passed during the last few years to limit public access to medications with pseudoephedrine, requires purchasers to sign a log and present identification and allows sales of pseudoephedrine to be tracked electronically in real time by law enforcement agencies?

The law still allows a person to buy up to nine grams of pseudoephedrine a month and meth cooks have found by using the smaller shake and bake labs they don’t need as much of the product. The criminals have also found a way to beat they system by using false identification and by “smurfing” to get a larger amounts of the drug from stores without being flagged.

“Smurfing” involves paying a large number of people to go to several different locations and each individually buy the maximum amount allowed per person. By using many persons and multiple fake IDs, it is harder to catch the meth makers. It’s a lucrative business for not only the cooks, but the “smurfers” as well.

Pseudoephedrine might sell for around $15, according to White, but people can be paid $75 to $100 for it by someone making meth.

What can stem the tide of the meth epidemic?

According to White and other law enforcement representatives and legislators, making pseudoephedrine a prescription medication is what it will take.

Up until 1976, pseudoephedrine was only available by prescription. Two states, Mississippi and Oregon have passed laws to return the drug to that status. In both states, the number of meth labs and meth arrests have dropped significantly.

 Marshall Fisher, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, noted in the video presentation that Mississippi had around 7,000 labs in 2009. By July 1, 2010, there was a 65 to 70 percent reduction in meth labs and a greater than 80 percent decrease in drug-endangered children, the innocent casualties in this epidemic.

In the same video, Rob Bovett, district attorney for Lincoln County, Oregon, said his state has seen a 96 percent reduction in meth labs and a 32 percent reduction in meth arrests.

A bill that would have made pseudoephedrine a prescription drug again in Kentucky didn’t make to the floor for a vote during the last session of the legislature. The bill’s author, Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, will re-introduce the modified legislation during the 2012 General Assembly, according to Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow.

Meth cooks use chalky tablets rather than gel tabs to make the drug from pseudoephedrine, according to Bell. Belcher’s new bill will take that into account.

“I’ve never seen a lab in my life made from gel capsules. It’s all chalky tablets,” Bell said.

When the bill is re-filed excluding gel tabs, it would only make the type of pseudoephedrine used in meth manufacturing available by prescription.

“Therefore we can keep the drug makers from getting the type of tablets they need to make it, but people that have illnesses and sicknesses that need pseudoephedrine can still get the gel capsules. There’s no difference taking them, so I think it’s a win-win all the way around,” Bell said.

A major reason the legislation didn’t come up for a vote during the last session was because drug companies heavily lobbied lawmakers and ran negative ads, according to White.

 He described the procedure that is followed when constituents call their legislators to voice their opinions on whether to vote yes or no on a bill. For each call, a green slip is filled out on how the caller wants lawmakers to vote and they pay attention to those slips. White said the drug companies used automatic dialing to “robo-call” the legislators multiple times to drive up the number of negative responses to the bill.

There’s one thing the lawmakers need to remember though, according to White.

“That robot don’t vote,” he said.

There are only 15 products and their generics that contain pseudoephedrine. There are 137 other over-the-counter medications that treat the same symptoms that do not contain the compound, according to White. Consumers wouldn’t be inconvenienced if those products with pseudoephedrine were made prescription.

“It’s all about the money,” said Bell. “The pharmaceutical companies are getting rich off selling these pseudoephedrine pills. It’s just that simple. They’ve got stockholders, boards of directors and CEOs and everybody’s putting a lot of money in their pockets. ... They know they are being used illegally. It’s going to cost them a lot of money not to be able to sell the chalky tablets, so they’re going to allow a lot of people to die.”

Bell said he will vote for the bill if it is brought to the floor in the next session.

“I made the decision to support the legislation and I’m going to continue to support the legislation,” he said.

State Senator David Givens, R-Greensburg, also backs the bill that would make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance.

“I supported legislation last spring session that would require all products containing pseudoephedrine be prescription only. The change would ensure products like Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine get into the right hands instead of being purchased for meth labs through loopholes in existing law,”  Givens said. “The change is directly aimed at decreasing drug production and its horrific collateral damage. The devastation caused in innocent lives, especially children’s, as well as the immense costs of cleaning up the labs result in a huge burden to communities.

“I intend to support similar legislation in the 2012 session. I believe more information and testimony will help members of the General Assembly be more educated about the proposal.”

White said the number of meth lab incidents in the state are projected to increase to 1,458 and will probably go higher than that. An even scarier statistic is that members of law enforcement think only about 10 percent of all labs are being found.

To contact local lawmakers about meth legislation, call the message center in Frankfort at (800) 372-7181.

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