Public Safety & Justice

Meth Lab Cleanup Program Contains Costs for Tenn.

Meth labs are on the rise again and federal funding can’t keep up. Now states have to pick up the mess -- and the bill.
by | April 2012

On Feb. 22, 2011, state and local law enforcement agencies got a scary message from the feds: The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) could no longer pay to clean up methamphetamine labs, which had risen to near-record levels in recent years.

By that time, most jurisdictions had already written their budgets, which didn’t include picking up the federal government’s tab for cleaning up meth labs. The feds’ money, however -- roughly $10 million under the Community Oriented Policing Services program -- had ran out just halfway through the fiscal year.

“To say that it opened up Pandora’s box is an understatement,” says Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Meth and Pharmaceutical Task Force, which had the nation’s highest number of meth lab seizures in 2010. “All of a sudden, the state and local agencies were faced with this bill. We didn’t know what to do.”

Because the money needed to replace federal cleanup funding could bankrupt smaller municipalities, “some law enforcement agencies were pressured to turn a blind eye,” Farmer says. Heads may have been turned more often than not, because lab seizures in Tennessee plummeted 75 percent in March 2011 -- right after federal funding ran out -- and then rose by 73 percent in July 2011, when the state started a cheaper cleanup program.

Despite the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006, which put strict regulations on over-the-counter products that contain pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed and Claritin, the labs ultimately prevailed. Initially, the law was extremely successful -- meth lab-related seizures plummeted from more than 12,000 in 2005 to 6,000 in 2007, according to the DEA. But by 2008, meth lab-related seizures began creeping back up nationwide, reaching near-record highs in 2010. In Tennessee, law enforcement dealt with more meth lab seizures than ever before -- mainly because people who produce meth, referred to as meth cooks, quickly adapted to the new federal law.

It led to a new cottage industry called “smurfing,” says DEA Special Agent Jeffrey Scott. Meth cooks hire “smurfs” to recruit third parties -- often homeless people, college students and the elderly -- to buy over-the-counter drugs for them. Fifteen states, including Tennessee, have implemented electronic tracking systems to monitor pseudoephedrine sales and cut down on smurfing. But tracking pseudoephedrine sales hasn’t reduced use or production, says Farmer. “It’s just provided us with more information.”

Another development since the 2006 law was the discovery of the “shake-and-bake method,” which requires fewer chemicals and less equipment, time and money, but is significantly more dangerous and leads to more explosions than the traditional meth-making process. Because of this new method, rural area labs have been able to produce higher quantities, while at the same time, meth labs have begun expanding into urban areas.

With more meth, more mess and no funding, Tennessee was forced to find an affordable way to pay for cleanup. It looked to other states battling the meth epidemic for solutions and settled on “an authorized central storage container program.”

For years, state and local law enforcement would bust meth labs and then wait for specially trained DEA contractors to arrive and clean up the hazardous mess. It was an expensive process since the agents were often needed past normal working hours, increasing the costs of contractors’ visits. Now, instead of waiting for contractors to do the work, state and local law enforcement are trained to do it themselves -- consider it DIY meth lab cleaning. Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma have each established a similar program in the last few years.

After officers properly clean the premises, they take the hazardous materials to one of 12 strategically placed containers throughout the state. Instead of being called to every meth lab seizure in the wee hours of the night, the DEA contractors now pick up the hazardous materials from the central storage bins during regular business hours. By removing the contractors from the cleanup process and cutting down on the number of times they’re used for disposal, the cost of cleanup has dropped from the national average of $2,500 to just $500 in Tennessee. Since starting the program in July, the state has amassed a cost savings of $3.47 million. “We’re really pushing the envelope as to what we’re asking our law enforcement to do, but we don’t have a choice,” says Farmer.

In his fiscal 2013 budget, President Obama proposed $12 million for anti-meth activities -- roughly the same amount as last year. But if the number of meth labs keeps going up, the cost savings from the new program may not be enough. That’s why some states want to take the federal meth law even further and make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug. Oregon and Mississippi have already done so, and seven other states, including Tennessee, have pending legislation to follow suit. But there is some resistance to the idea. Oklahoma recently killed just such a bill. The pharmaceutical industry and several local associations representing doctors, pharmacists and grocers lobbied against it, saying the bill would only place new costs and access restrictions on law-abiding citizens.

That argument doesn’t phase Farmer, who says state action won’t be enough. After Mississippi passed its prescription-only law, Tennessee’s sales of pseudoephedrine doubled -- largely from people crossing state lines to buy it. Farmer insists that the only thing that will curb meth production and use is a federal law returning pseudoephedrine to a controlled substance.

“States doing it piecemeal is better than nothing,” he says, “but with as many border crossings as we have, it makes it very difficult for a state by itself to do something.”

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