Too Many Cooks

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

But for many in law enforcement, the prospect of fighting a more traditional war on meth is preferable to raiding small-scale labs. Not only are the makeshift operations treacherous for the narcotics officers who enter them, but they've created a quagmire in the state's drug-testing labs, which until recently, according to Parks and others, were taking take six to eight months to process samples used in prosecution. (The recent addition of extra laboratory technicians has shrunk turnaround time to about 90 days.)

"One of the things that makes it so hard is that people in Missouri are all using the product they're cooking," says prosecutor Parks, who estimates that 60 percent of his office's workload is meth-related. "We'd go out and catch somebody, and they'd be out on bail before we could get the test results back. So before we could go forward [with the prosecution], we might have caught them three or four more times."

And the new law will do little to ease the flood of drug cases that bog down the court system. In Missouri, drug offenders are classified as nonviolent offenders, which means they're often let off with a slap on the wrist in order to free up prison beds.

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

"I've got people who I'm telling: 'I think we can put you in the drug-court program, get you a G.E.D., get you a job and cleaned up in the next two and a half years. It's going to be a hard process, but when you come out of this, you're going to be a viable member of society.' And I've got guys saying: 'Why the hell would I want to do that? I can get two years' probation, continue doing dope and not put up with this hard-ass program,'" says Grellner, who estimates his narcotics unit devotes upward of 90 percent of its time combating meth. "You see cops getting frustrated: 'What is this, a catch-and-release program?'"

Adding to law enforcement's burden is the state of Illinois. While governors in every other state that borders Missouri have signed similar anti-meth legislation, a comparable bill died earlier this year in the Illinois legislature. So what's to stop Missouri meth heads from heading across the Mississippi on a cold-pill shopping spree?

"Nothing," concedes Grellner, who lost 20 percent of his lung capacity after inhaling fumes during a meth-lab raid. "We have an open border with Illinois."

At present, anti-meth legislation is something of a legal patchwork, with each state responsible for enacting its own bill. On the federal level, Republican Senator Jim Talent of Missouri and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California have introduced analogous legislation in the form of the "Combat Meth Act." As with the new Missouri state law, the federal legislation faces stiff opposition from the drug and retail lobbies. And the Bush administration is proposing to eliminate a $634 million grant program for state and local police departments and to slash federal funding in High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas from $226 million to $100 million.

Despite the cutbacks and the contentious debate, Missouri authorities are looking forward to getting out of the lab-seizure business.

"Many of the state and local agencies have been so swamped handling and processing these small labs that they really haven't had much of an opportunity to investigate larger organizations," says the DEA's Riley. "This should free up a lot of state and local man hours so they can get back to what they really need to do."

Bill Piper cautions that law enforcement alone won't beat meth. There's also got to be funding for treatment.

"Policymakers shouldn't see the cold-medication restriction as a solution, because it won't have any impact on the meth-addiction problem," says Piper. "As long as people are addicted to meth, there's going to be someone to supply it."

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