The number of methamphetamine lab seizures has increased for the first time in six years nationwide. Oklahoma, California, Kentucky and Missouri have all seen big spikes in meth lab seizures, and Indiana had a 20 percent jump in cases this year.
Federal authorities say meth seizures have increased because production of the drug is more widespread, largely because meth manufacturers found a simpler way to cook it. That has law enforcement trying to find new ways to combat an old problem.
Methamphetamine has been around since the 1970s. In 2006, law enforcement made big gains after a federal law placed meth's main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, behind pharmacy counters. The next year, meth lab seizures dropped by half.
But the reduction didn't last. Mark Woodward of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics says meth producers have found an easier way to make it, called "shake and bake."
"You essentially combine all of the ingredients in one 2-liter soda bottle or sports bottle," he says. "It creates its own heat because of the chemicals — so what they do is shake it up and it's creating a heat, which is causing the cooking reaction."
Unlike elaborate and clandestine meth labs of the past, Woodward says, this new method is portable and can be done in small places, like a car.
Problems With Portable Labs
Authorities in Oklahoma report 200 meth lab busts since January — just a few shy of their all-time record. One meth lab found recently in Tulsa was in a stairwell of a state office building.
"What we've seen already — I think we've had like 10 house fires that have started off these labs, particularly a couple of them in apartment complexes," says Tulsa police officer Jason Willingham.
Jason Ewing, a 21-year-old graduate of drug court, is a former meth user.
"There's a lot of things that can go wrong when you're cooking it," he says. "We burned up a couple of my buddy's bathrooms just from the reaction."
A Growing Problem
Because the federal pseudoephedrine law only limits the amount one person can purchase, meth cooks have enlisted friends and relatives to help buy the household ingredients. But because this new manufacturing method makes smaller batches, the cooks can skirt federal law and buy fewer cold pills.
"You know, you go to Walmart and you spend $65 or something, and you've got the ingredients there to make $2,000 worth of crank," Ewing says, using the street name for meth.
The drug's proliferation has vexed law enforcement.
Sgt. Paul Andry of the Indiana State Police says it's a constant cat-and-mouse game.
"As we find a way to battle one trend, the manufacturers come up with a new way to do something," Andry says. "It's one of the problems that we really don't have an answer for in our rural areas because we just don't have the resources available."
Tightening Regulations For Cold Medicine
Meth and its manufacture have caused millions of dollars in property damage, but Rusty Payne with the Drug Enforcement Administration says it's more than just a loss of property.
"This is what people need to understand about meth — any kind of meth production: There's no other drug that has more consequences for the innocent than methamphetamine," Payne says.
Law enforcement officials say they need even tighter regulations on the sale of pseudophedrine. They point to Oregon, which requires a doctor's prescription for certain cold medicines. That state saw a decrease in meth lab seizures last year.