Too Many Cooks

Missouriís days as the nationís Meth Lab Capital are numbered. So whatís next?

By the time he arrived at St. John's Mercy Medical Center's burn unit on February 1, Michael Murphy was blind. Hours earlier the Franklin County man had overheated a sealed tank of anhydrous ammonia at a friend's house when the chemical fertilizer literally blew up in his face.

"I noticed it was flaming, on fire," the 24-year-old Murphy recalls. "I went to shut it off and realized that the tank was melting down. That's when I watched it fold."

The explosion blew a hole the size of a 55-gallon drum in the ceiling. It shattered the home's roof timbers and buckled its drywall. Investigators later found a piece of shrapnel that had torn through three wall studs, sailed across the kitchen and broken another man's arm.

Blinded by meth: Michael Murphy, cooked by anhydrous ammonia
Jennifer Silverberg
Blinded by meth: Michael Murphy, cooked by anhydrous ammonia

Murphy barely escaped alive: Besides blinding him, the blast shattered his left eardrum, ripped into his right leg and charred his left forearm with third-degree burns that ate through every layer of skin. The explosion was so powerful it bruised Murphy's heart; for days afterward his pulse did not rise above 40 beats per minute.

"You can see Murphy's bloody handprints on the wall, because he was blind and deaf, trying to feel his way out of the house," says Detective Corporal Jason Grellner, a Franklin County narcotics agent working the case. "The guy that got hit in the arm basically disregarded Mike. He dragged him out to his vehicle, then just propped him up against the truck while he cleaned up the lab."

Welcome to rural Missouri, a system of counties left devastated by small-time meth cooks and an entrenched culture of addiction. The seemingly intractable problem has affected nearly every sheriff's department in the state. County court dockets are clogged with drug cases, and the environment is being polluted by the toxic byproducts of meth production. Though millions of federal dollars have been earmarked to fund law enforcement and cleanup, authorities have made little progress in ridding the state of meth labs. On the contrary: Last year Missouri tallied a record 2,877 meth-lab incidents (a broad category that includes seized labs, chemicals, dump sites, etc.) -- the highest rate in the nation.

State and local authorities say that relief may now be in sight. Last month Governor Matt Blunt signed legislation that will place cold-medicine tablets containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- key ingredients in meth production -- behind pharmacy counters. The new law limits the amount of the drug that an individual may buy. It also mandates that purchasers show a valid picture ID and sign a searchable registry.

"This is the law that changes the playing field," says Grellner, who helped spearhead the effort to persuade lawmakers to introduce the bill. "All those problems that are associated with meth labs -- the explosions, the dangers to the environment, to the children, to police officers -- all of those are going to go away."

As evidence of the law's efficacy, Grellner points to Oklahoma, which enacted similar legislation in April 2004. Prior to passage, authorities in that state reported an average of 105 meth-lab busts per month. In May of this year, that figure was down to six.

But while the law, which goes into effect July 15, might go a long way toward wiping out homegrown Missouri meth, Grellner and other law-enforcement authorities are quick to concede that it may well introduce a new criminal element.

"It's going to dry up those mom-and-pop labs," says Franklin County Prosecutor Bob Parks. "But I also think it's going to bring in organized crime."

Authorities contend that meth use in Missouri traditionally has been an addiction-driven phenomenon, as opposed to a profit-driven one. In other words, meth cooks generally make just enough of the drug to feed their own habit. Authorities estimate that each cook teaches ten other people how to prepare the drug. Together, these two factors have created what Grellner calls distribution "amoeba," which bypasses traditional drug-dealing hierarchies.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, "superlabs" in California and Mexico supply roughly 75 percent of the meth consumed nationwide. With the disappearance of Missouri's so-called Beavis-and-Butthead labs, authorities say, organized-crime outfits will step in to satisfy demand.

"Clearly, [the law's] not going to solve the addiction problem that exists," says Jack Riley, assistant special agent in charge for the DEA in St. Louis. "[Mexican cartels] have a target audience or customer base in Missouri. So the harder we make it for the mom-and-pop labs, in many cases we may be opening up some of these customers to the Mexican organizations."

Critics of U.S. drug policy contend that until the demand for meth decreases, there will always be a supply. "Law enforcement's response has always been: 'We know how to deal with organized crime.' But going after drug cartels hasn't really dealt with the drug problem," argues Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group. "The price of drugs are at an all-time low. The purity of drugs are at an all-time high. A lot of that is because we've focused for so long on the supply side. What we really need to get at is the demand. As long as there's demand, there's always going to be a supply."

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