In a good-news, bad-news scenario, the number of methamphetamine labs broken up by law enforcement in 2012 has placed Surry County on a dubious list of counties having the largest increase in the state.
According to Attorney General Ray Cooper, Surry County’s 16 labs busted by police last year is a 300 percent increase over the four labs busted in 2011.
The North Carolina counties with the most meth lab busts last year were Wilkes (59), Wayne (27), Catawba (26), Burke (24) and Anson (21). Wilkes, Catawba, Cleveland, Onslow and Surry counties saw the largest increase in meth lab busts compared to the previous year.
Across the state, the number of meth lab busts reached a record high last year, with 460 labs busted.
Police blame a new, simpler cooking method with the increase, but say a new initiative to regulate one of the primary ingredients is having an effect.
“Prevention efforts have helped hold down the number of larger meth labs, but small ones are still very dangerous,” Cooper said.
The 460 labs busted in North Carolina last year is up from the 344 meth labs confiscated in 2011, and is nearly double the 235 labs raided in 2010.
Cooper said that 73 percent of the labs busted last year used the “one-pot” method. These labs, also known as shake and bake labs, produce smaller amounts of the drug than the previous larger labs. Using this method, the drug can be cooked in a plastic soda bottle and a small amount of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient found in over-the-counter cold medicine.
Cooper said the state is trying to thwart the growing production with a new electronic system that tracks purchases of pseudoephedrine, which can lead law enforcement to labs.
Last year, police blocked the sale of a total of more than 66,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine, enough to produce 277 pounds of methamphetamine.
Two Factors Involved
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson, like Cooper, blames much of the rise in meth production in the county on the simplicity and ease of cooking using the one-pot method.
“Criminals no longer need a tabletop and a lot of materials,” he said. “With this new process it’s a lot simpler and easier to do. People who otherwise would go out and buy their drugs somewhere are now making their own.”
But he also credits the increase in busts last year to good old investigative techniques like networking.
“We’re doing a much better job now than we were in 2011 in identifying and finding meth labs,” he said. “When the new pseudoephedrine law took effect and purchasers had to start registering, it became much easier to look at the patterns of who is purchasing the ingredients.
“We’re just connecting the dots.”
Atkinson said he doesn’t believe there more labs in the county, but noted that at the end of 2011, officers discovered several labs in a short time period.
“From there, we were able to locate more labs,” he said. “It was just a matter of looking at who they were dealing with, what they were doing, and connecting the dots from one to the other.”
And once law enforcement identifies the higher-skilled “finish cooks,” in the area, simple associations play a roll.
“It is a process of finding out who they are talking to and who their friends are,” he said.
A recent bust of five people for manufacturing the drug is likely to yield more arrests in the near future, Atkinson said.
“We’re just trying to find the labs while they are still active and the materials are still there,” he said. “With this one-pot method, it’s so easy to dispose of the evidence.”
But he noted that he doesn’t necessarily believe the percentage of people using the drug is on the rise.
“It’s something we do have an issue with, but when I talk to other sheriffs across the state, it seems to be a population-based problem. There are percentages of the population who are just going to do it, and it seems that as the population grows, the number of labs go up. The percentages may remain the same, but the numbers go up.
“It’s just one of those things we’re going to have to continue fighting,” Atkinson said. “Every time we identify and catch people, they find a different method of cooking and avoiding detection. It’s a cat and mouse game.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.