RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR this week is looking at the war on drugs.

And today we consider a battle the nation seems to be winning. It involves methamphetamine, which was widely produced in small makeshift labs. For years, thousands of these toxic and explosive labs flourished in the nation's interior, especially in rural areas. Today, there are far fewer meth labs but there is still plenty of meth around.

NPR's Howard Berkes tells us why.

HOWARD BERKES: It only takes a short drive on a rainy day in a small town in southwest Missouri to find a connection to meth.

Mr. RICK BATSON (Chief, Aurora Police Department, Missouri): Meth is our number one problem we have with drugs and narcotics. The drug of choice it seems like across this part of the country over the last eight or nine years; it's been a severe problem.

BERKES: Rick Batson is the police chief in Aurora, Missouri, a town of 8,000, close enough to Springfield for commuters but far enough for grazing herds of cows. Aurora police used to bust a meth lab a month until a state law restricted access to pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient. Now it's more like a meth lab a year.

Mr. BATSON: So we don't have that type of meth problem. But what we have now is something called ice, or it's methamphetamine that comes out of Mexico. It's crystal meth, it's much more potent. Now, this house right here on the left is the one where our drug dealer was that we picked up here last week.

BERKES: What was notable about that situation?

Mr. BATSON: This individual had the direct contact in Mexico and brought the crystal meth from Mexico to this location and dispersed it from here.

BERKES: The rain falls harder as we sit in the police car, gazing at the two-storey Victorian home. It's one of the nicest in the neighborhood. And from it, Batson said, the suspected Mexican dealer spread 100 pounds of meth across southwest Missouri. That's as much as 180,000 doses and it's worth as much as $4.5 million. What's your understanding about why he would end up here in Aurora?

Mr. BATSON: That I don't know. We have a growing Hispanic population in southwest Missouri. The Hispanic population in town here is - those that we have are a bunch of hardworking people who are here trying to do a job for their families and things. And like in any of our societies, we have those in the group that would go the other direction, and that's what we have here. They had access to stuff from Mexico so they take advantage of it, I guess.

BERKES: They take advantage of persistent demand left by the sharp drop in small meth labs. Discovery of small labs is down 55 percent in Missouri, 73 percent in Iowa and Kansas, and 88 percent in Nebraska, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But Mexican meth is pouring in even in the new territory in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky, and it's a market fueled mostly by white meth users in unexpected places.

(Soundbite of chimes ringing)

BERKES: Wind jostles chimes on a porch at a white two-storey colonial outside Ozark, Missouri. It's a bucolic rural setting except for the freeway roaring in the distance, the drug-sniffing dog inside, and the arrest in the driveway of a 45-year-old grandmother.

Mr. SCOTT BRITON(ph) (Police Officer, Southwest Missouri's Comet Drug Task Force): Put your hands behind your back, you hear me?

Ms. JANET PATRICK: Oh, my god. Oh my god, I don't believe this.

BERKES: Janet Patrick is handcuffed by Scott Briton of Southwest Missouri's Comet Drug Task Force after an officer finds a small bag of crystal meth in her purse. Patrick consented to the search, which also turned up packets of $20 and $100 bills wrapped in rubber bands in increments typical for meth sales. An informant told police that Patrick is a meth dealer.

Mr. BRITON: You were lying to me and I don't appreciate it.

Ms. PATRICK: No, sir. I swear to God I did know that was in there. I swear to God I did know.

Mr. BRITON: Now you're under arrest. You're going to jail.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

Ms. PATRICK: What about my grandson?

Mr. BRITON: All right. I'm going to read your rights. So you do have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law. You have the right to have a lawyer…

BERKES: The toddler's 17-year-old mother is called, arrives in tears, and has a few choice words about meth.

Unidentified Woman: It's (bleep) trashed in Missouri, or pretty much this part of Missouri. It's disgusting. I've always thought it was disgusting and it just makes it worse that she does it. That's all I want to stay.

BERKES: The girl's mother admits she used as meth while also insisting she doesn't sell it. But in seven hours, eight more people are arrested at or near the house.

One is considered a major distributor, all drove down the dead-end farm road to Patrick's driveway. She has yet to be charged. Police say they're building their case. On the drive back to the office, task force supervisor T.J. Stevens sums up the day.

Mr. T.J. STEVENS (Supervisor, Comet Drug Task Force): We could probably literally stay out at that one house for another three or four hours and end up with continual arrests, continual methamphetamine seized just from one house in one county of seven that we cover. It's out there, it's here to stay, it's going to take some, you know, act of God to make it change.

BERKES: The change to date from meth made locally in small mom and pop labs to imported Mexican meth has one major benefit. Mike McDonald is a detective in Jasper County, Missouri.

Mr. MIKE MCDONALD (Detective, Jasper County, Missouri): The threat of meth labs blowing up, long term exposure to chemicals to guys like me who break the math labs down, kids being exposed because mom and dad's cooking in the house has gone down.

BERKES: Police have more time now to focus on trafficking. But there's also more money in meth now, along with organized cartels.

Mr. MCDONALD: They can afford surveillance systems. They can afford body armor. They can afford weapons. And we're going to see more and more of that now. It's a violent outcome in the future.

BERKES: There are signs already of a more violent trade, according to one old mom and pop meth maker wistful for the old days. He is helping police now, so they've asked us not to use his name.

Unidentified Man: If you came to me and got an eight ball of dope and didn't pay me, that's cool. You couldn't come back. You knew you could never come back and get anything from me ever again. Now, if you get $50 worth of dope on credit and don't pay, they're subject to go burn your car or hurt you or your mom or your family or somebody. That's the difference.

(Soundbite of chimes ringing)

BERKES: There is one other key difference in the meth showing up in small towns and rural homes like this one outside Mozart, Missouri, where seven of the nine people arrested had some connection to the drug. Addicts and treatment counselors say the meth flowing in from Mexico is more quickly and deeply addictive and tougher to kick, when seeming victory in the war on drugs is now a fresh battle that appears much harder to win.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: At npr.org we have an interactive map where you can trace how meth and other illegal drugs reach the U.S. And later today, more on the war on drugs on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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