COLUMBIA — Missouri: The meth capital of the United States.
It’s a label that has stuck. After all, Missouri has led the nation in meth lab seizures every year since 2001, and 2007 was no exception: 1,189 labs were seized last year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Web site.
And the number of busts in the second half of 2007 was greater than in the second half of 2006, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol statistics.
But the statistics are misleading. For one thing, they don’t measure quantity. In 2007, authorities confiscated roughly 40 kilograms of meth. Last year, California seized 221 labs, but netted 1,958 kilograms of meth, almost 50 times more than Missouri, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency Web site.
The numbers don’t surprise members of local law enforcement. Police describe Missouri’s meth production as taking place in small “meth circles” rather than large operations. Think of “moonshine” meth operations, rather than factories, and you’ve got the picture.
“In Boone County, they are usually very small mom-and-pop labs, not for big distribution,” said Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department. He said this is generally true throughout the state.
Detective Clark Luntsford of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department’s drug enforcement unit agreed. “If you’re looking at quantity, there’s no comparison” between the amount of meth produced in Missouri and what’s made in Western states.
As for mid-Missouri and Boone County, the number of methamphetamine labs seized here remains low relative to the rest of the state, according to Highway Patrol statistics.
But there is a trend that worries Missouri law enforcement and may partly account for the increase in meth busts in the second half of 2007 over the previous year: the rise in “smurfing,” or traveling from store to store in order to purchase pseudoephedrine, a key component in meth.
The objective is to get around the state law passed in 2005 that limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to 9 grams a month; requires a customer to be 18 with valid identification; requires pharmacists to keep a log of customers buying pseudoephedrine; and requires that pseudoephedrine be kept behind a counter and be sold only by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.
“When the laws change, criminals change to adapt,” Luntsford said. “The state needs to adapt in the same way to be one step ahead.”
Luntsford described how “meth circles” generally work in Missouri. A circle usually consists of one cook and about 10 addicts. Each addict has a particular job. One person — or several — may smurf for pseudoephedrine. Another may collect batteries, and so on.
After their tasks are done, they report to the cook. The cook makes enough meth to feed the habits of the addicts and himself, with little, if any, left over to sell.
“Most people are using it as fast as they’re making it,” Luntsford said.
Sgt. Ethan Ahern of the Missouri State Highway Patrol confirmed that most Missouri labs include a small number of people. As the commander of the Mid-Missouri Unified Strike Team and Narcotics Group, he said he has busted labs with up to 12 people involved, and some labs with only one person.
“On average, there are three to four people involved,” Ahern said.
The 2005 Combat Meth Act led to a decline in meth lab seizures over the past five years. But the logs are handwritten, so they are not easily shared between pharmacies. As a result, meth cooks have begun smurfing in order to obtain pseudoephedrine.
Smurfing is not unique to Missouri. Gordon Taylor, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency Sacramento office, said smurfing is also on the rise in California. He said more legislation could fill gaps in the Combat Meth Act.
“The Combat Meth Act was a great law, but there appears to be a bit of a void in keeping track of who goes into retail stores and buys pseudoephedrine,” he said.
Taylor went on to say that California law enforcement has heard rumors that Central Valley meth cooks are regularly hiring homeless people to smurf for them.
Missouri is considering legislation to close the loopholes. Sen. Norma Champion, R–Greene County, has proposed a bill requiring pharmacies to keep electronic records of pseudoephedrine purchasers for real-time monitoring.
Champion said she modeled her bill after an Oklahoma law, which she said has been very successful. Oklahoma is the only state with real-time electronic monitoring. The system allows a pharmacist to see a record of all pseudoephedrine purchases a person has made. And it links all the pharmacies so any pharmacist will know if a person has already bought the legal limit of the drug elsewhere.
Champion said the electronic log system would help prevent smurfing, while the paper log system only helps catch smurfers who have successfully bought over the legal limit.
“This will stop anybody from getting more than the legal amount (of pseudoephedrine) in Missouri,” Champion said. “It should make a tremendous difference.”
As of Monday, the bill had passed in committee and was ready for the Senate floor. Champion said she expected it to pass.
Sgt. Jason Clark of the Highway Patrol said the agency would support any legislation that would help in the fight against meth, which he called “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Even if Missouri solves the smurfing problem, meth trafficking from Mexico will still be a major concern. Unlike locally produced meth, imported meth is meant for distribution.
“Most of what we’re seeing in the confines of Boone County is imported stuff,” Reddin said.
He said imported meth can usually be identified by the packaging. Many groups have “signatures,” such as certain colors or insignia, that show the area of origin. Reddin said that when asked, people arrested for meth possession give answers that have helped law enforcement conclude that most of it is coming from Mexico.
No matter where it comes from, it also gives rise to other crimes. Though Ahern said he did not have statistics to show that link, he said he saw a connection. Meth use may compel an addict to break into a house or rob a store to get money to feed the addiction, he said.
“Because meth makes them so paranoid and aggressive, I think if they do commit violent crimes it increases the likelihood that they will take it to the next level,” Ahern said.
The paranoia often leads meth users to arm themselves and set booby traps around their labs.
“People say drugs and guns go together,” Reddin said. “But meth and guns are connected at the hip.”
Taylor said it is essential to educate the public about the dangers of meth, starting with young people. He said he gets their attention by putting it this way: “I tell them, if you want to become badly emaciated, lose your teeth, damage your hair, break out with acne, become extremely paranoid and possibly even die, then methamphetamine is the drug for you.”