News: CJ Exclusives

State Claims Progress in Meth War

Attorney general calls for tougher laws, more resources to combat drug labs

North Carolina has made progress in its war against methamphetamine, but the drug still threatens to overwhelm the state’s law enforcement, social services, public health facilities, and courtrooms unless laws are toughened, according to a report from the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper.

In 1999, the first year that meth laboratories were reported in North Carolina, State Bureau of Investigation agents raided nine labs. Agents shut down 177 labs in 2003, and 108 labs so far in 2004. The report calls on the legislature to increase penalties against meth manufacturers from a Class H felony to at least a Class C felony. Legislators also should consider enhancing the criminal penalty when a child is present in a meth lab or endangered by meth, the report said.

In 2003, children were found living in 25 percent of the homes raided by SBI agents. The children face risks of fire, explosion, and exposure to toxic chemicals, the report said. In addition, North Carolina must prevent the illegal manufacturing of meth by beefing up its laws against the possession of precursor ingredients needed to “cook” the drug, the report said. The report recommends increasing the penalty for possessing meth ingredients from a Class H felony to at least a Class F to discourage the growth of meth labs.

The report also asks legislators to add meth to the list of drugs that can trigger a charge of second-degree murder when the drug causes an overdose death. Legislation based on the study’s recommendations is scheduled to be considered by the legislature during the upcoming session, which starts Monday.

The report also says that the public needs to be educated to recognize meth labs and that prosecutors need help arresting meth makers. Specific report recommendations include: a public awareness effort with videos, brochures, and a website so that citizens can learn to identify and report meth labs; specialized training so that people such as landlords, hotel and motel workers, and garbage collectors can spot and tell law-enforcement officers about a potential lab; and training for prosecutors in how to handle meth-related cases and how to use existing environmental laws to bring added charges against meth lab operators.

To cut down on the easy availability of meth precursors, the report calls on retailers and law-enforcement officials to work together to limit huge sales and theft of over-the-counter cold medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth. Suggestions include: curbing the amount of the medicines sold to a single customer or kept out on store shelves; placing precursors behind a service counter; alerting shoppers that aisles where these products are sold are kept under video surveillance; and training store employees and management to report suspicious purchases or thefts to law enforcement.

Additional recommendations include better training and equipment for first responders such as firefighters and emergency workers; more resources for the SBI, the only law enforcement agency in the state trained to respond to meth labs; help for social service agencies that care for children found in meth labs; and more treatment for meth addicts in the counties hardest hit by meth.

The report also calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to develop and distribute a medical protocol for health-care workers who treat patients exposed to meth labs.

Meth is a synthetic drug that is cooked in labs often located in homes, apartments, motel rooms, and vehicles. The drug is addictive and can cause paranoia and violence. The labs are highly toxic and can explode or catch fire. Tell-tale signs of a lab include empty blister packs of decongestant, glass cookware, and a strong chemical odor. A copy of the final report is available online at the department’s web site under “What’s New.”