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.

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."

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.

"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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