Communities Struggle with the Fallout from Meth
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
According to government statistics, meth use has doubled since the 1990s. The federal government estimates there are one and a half million methamphetamine users in the US and, while that doesn't approach the numbers who use marijuana or cocaine, the fallout from meth poses singular challenges.
Unlike most illegal drugs, the key ingredients to meth can be found at the corner drugstore. Home-grown labs have been uncovered in every state in the union, but the problem is most acute in rural and suburban areas where it's easier to hide a dangerous and smelly manufacturing process. Local governments spend an inordinate amount of their limited funds to bust these meth labs and the sometimes-violent addicts they supply. After years of frustration, several states acted against the supply side of the drug, with legislation that imposes restrictions on over-the-counter cold remedies that contain pseudoephedrine, which is also an ingredient used to make meth. Other states have meth bills pending. Some of them emphasize treatment; others propose stiffer penalty for lab operators.
Later on in the program, a performance chat with musician Mike Doughty, formerly of the band Soul Coughing, about his new solo album and life on the road.
But first, the scourge of methamphetamines. We want to hear what your state is doing to stop the spread of meth. What works? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
In 2004, the state of Oklahoma passed pioneering legislation which put medications that contain meth ingredients behind the pharmacist's counter. The state's attorney general, Drew Edmonson, was a proponent of that law. He joins us now by phone from his office in Oklahoma City.
Nice of you to be with us on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. DREW EDMONSON (Attorney General, Oklahoma): Thank you. It's my pleasure.
CONAN: What was the intent of this legislation?
Mr. EDMONSON: The intent of the legislation was to get pseudoephedrine off the shelves where it could be bought in bulk and put it behind the counter at drugstores, limit the amount that could be purchased and require that a photo ID be shown and that a signature log be kept on the purchases. And the bill, which passed in 2004, has already had a dramatic impact on the number of meth labs in this state.
CONAN: How dramatic?
Mr. EDMONSON: A 70-percent drop in the first year in actual numbers, and that reversed a trend where the number of meth lab seizures had gone up 1,400 percent going into the year 2002. So the reduction was dramatic, and it is continuing.
CONAN: Has it reduced the number of meth users in the state of Oklahoma?
Mr. EDMONSON: Well, that's an interesting question, and I don't totally know the answer to that, of course, because meth users, if they aren't able to produce it in their own kitchens, can buy smuggled methamphetamine from other states or other countries. So there's not an absolute answer to that question. I would have to believe that the number of meth users has gone down with the number of meth labs going down. And in any event, the risks of a meth lab operating in an apartment complex or in a neighborhood to children and to others is severe enough that if we can just reduce the number of labs I would score that a victory.
CONAN: Sure. There are important environmental impacts, and more than environmental, as you say. Children, people, anybody around these meth labs is in real danger.
Mr. EDMONSON: Typically, there are children in the home, and they're in danger. And the ingredients themselves during the cooking process can be very dangerous. If it's an apartment as opposed to a rural farmhouse, it could endanger the whole complex.
CONAN: The other part that we mentioned, also, is that a local police department with a meth lab or two in their area of jurisdiction--they're going to be hard pressed.
Mr. EDMONSON: They're going to be hard pressed. The last tour I did at county courthouses, every sheriff in the state of Oklahoma was telling me that their jails were full because of methamphetamine, that they were overcrowded because of methamphetamine. So it is worth the hardship on county government and on our penal system and on law enforcement in general.
CONAN: I suppose that this law could have some consequences for regular folks who have a large family and a whole bunch of colds.
Mr. EDMONSON: Well, the amount that can be purchased in a 30-day period should be sufficient for most families to handle everybody's cold at the same time. But there is also an ability to purchase more with a prescription, if the cold does hit your whole family simultaneously. But the number of grams that can be purchased legally should be plenty enough to satisfy a cold, even multiple colds, but is not sufficient to cook.
CONAN: Have you had any complaints about that?
Mr. EDMONSON: Not to our office. You know, if there have been complaints at drugstores, which would not be surprising, I haven't heard of them. Now most of the people in Oklahoma have been aware for several years of the rising methamphetamine problem, and, you know, having to show your driver's license and sign a log is a small price to pay to get rid of that scourge.
CONAN: We're talking about new tactics against methamphetamines. Our guest is Drew Edmonson, the attorney general of the state of Oklahoma. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. You can e-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's take a call from Chris. Chris is calling from Paton, Iowa.
CHRIS (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to comment that we're out in the field farming, and we farm a lot of rented ground, and a lot of this ground has old, abandoned houses on it or barns or outbuildings or grain bins or what have you. And every year, somebody finds, you know, the remnants of a meth lab, you know, in this--you know, abandoned farmhouses and whatnot. And we're out farming and, you know, a lot of us are really worried about confrontations, and a lot of farmers, myself included, have gone and gotten carry permits, because if I have a confrontation, I don't want to be naked. And I'll tell you, never in my life did I think that I would have to carry a weapon while farming for my own protection. I just wanted to throw that in there, and I'll just listen on the radio. Thank you. Have a good day.
CONAN: Chris, thanks for calling.
Attorney General Edmonson, that's an aspect of this I hadn't thought of.
Mr. EDMONSON: Well, it is, and it is a phenomenon when the production of methamphetamine was in larger-scale labs and they had to be in rural, remote areas because of the strong odor associated with them. Now the ability to cook meth from pseudoephedrine has reduced the size of the laboratories, increased the number of laboratories and made it possible to do that cooking in much more urban areas.
CONAN: In smaller batches, yeah.
Mr. EDMONSON: Yeah. I would have one other word for Chris in Iowa, and that is: Do not try to clean out one of those labs on his own. If he runs across one of those things, please contact law enforcement and let them process that. It could still be dangerous.
CONAN: And the process does produce--What?--three pounds of toxic material for every pound of methamphetamine.
Mr. EDMONSON: Yes. And it can remain toxic and remain dangerous, and it needs to be dismantled by professionals.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Josh in Rutherford County, North Carolina.
JOSH (Caller): Hello. Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JOSH: I'm a--yes?
CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead.
JOSH: I'm a reporter for a local paper here in Rutherford County, and last year we busted--or the cops busted 38 meth labs in a county the size of 40,000 people. And luckily, Senator Walter Dalton, a Democrat from this county, has pushed a bill through the state Senate to try and put cold meds behind the counter on a state level. However, we need it on a federal level, because Rutherford County borders South Carolina, and meth users could easily go to South Carolina to get the...
CONAN: Yeah. Is that a problem there in Oklahoma, Attorney General Edmonson?
Mr. EDMONSON: It has been a problem in the border areas. The number of pseudoephedrine and amphetamine sales went up in Texas and Arkansas and in Kansas when we passed our law. I think a federal statute modeled after the Oklahoma statute is a very good idea. Our director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Lonnie Wright, has been to North Carolina and testified in legislative committee hearings about the value of our statute, but Josh is absolutely right. If somebody's close to South Carolina, it's not going to completely dry up the problem.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Josh.
JOSH: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller in with you before you have to leave. This is Bill, and Bill's with us from Akron, Ohio.
BILL (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal.
BILL: I'm a severe allergy sufferer, as in the last week or couple weeks ago, when the pine pollen was coming out, I was on double doses of Claritin and something else called Extendryl, and, quite frankly, it still wasn't enough. And if it wasn't possible to buy several boxes of this non-prescription-type cold medicine--there are times of the year when I'm literally incapacitated. And I guess from a libertarian point of view, although I'm not a libertarian, I really resent having to go in and request something that's a legal drug, over the counter, be asked to sign my name in a register, be stuck into a database.
And especially if it's a federal program, if I take a trip and I forget my medicine and I'm over my allotment--I'm in California, Florida, somewhere else with--well, I won't go into the description of what it's like to be me during the wrong time of year, but trust me, I would be unpleasant to look at. Let's put it that way. And I can't--I certainly understand the problem, but the flip side of it is there's a lot of people out here like me who are going to have to put up with the hassle of yet another government intrusion to our privacy in the name of our safety.
CONAN: Would you think that a little hassle was justified if it cut seriously into meth production in this country?
BILL: Well, yes and no, I guess. How many liberties are we willing to sacrifice in the name of our safety? I'm not sure where we draw the line. I guess...
CONAN: Well, let me ask...
BILL: ...if we draw the line...
CONAN: ...Attorney General Edmonson about that.
Mr. EDMONSON: Well, I certainly sympathize with Bill, and, you know, the nine grams within 30 days should be sufficient for the most severe of allergies. And, you know, maybe he can buy nine grams one month and, if he escapes having allergies, buy another nine grams the next month and have some stockpiled. I don't like taking off my shoes at the airport to get on an airplane. There are just an awful lot of things that we do have to put up with. The secondary criminal activity involved with methamphetamines is absolutely phenomenal--the burglaries, the vehicle thefts, the crimes of violence that people commit, not to mention shoplifting, bogus checks and everything else to get ahold of methamphetamine--is a crime wave above and beyond the mere violation of our drug laws. It was tearing us up in Oklahoma, and we've gotten a handle on it, and at least most Oklahoma citizens think that the inconvenience is a small price to pay.
CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
BILL: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck with your allergies.
BILL: Hey, thanks a lot.
CONAN: And, Attorney General Edmonson, thank you for your time today.
Mr. EDMONSON: You bet. It's been a pleasure. Take care.
CONAN: Drew Edmonson is attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, and he joined us by phone from his office in Oklahoma City. We're talking about new tactics in the fight against meth production and addiction. If you're in law enforcement in a community that has these problems, what methods would you like to see tried? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking about new methods that law enforcement and state legislators are considering to try to fight the spread of methamphetamine production. We've heard about laws that would put cold medicines that include pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in methamphetamine, behind the counter. What else is going on? Are there other approaches where you live that may be working? Join us: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And joining us now is Blake Harrison, a senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, and he's with us from a studio at member station KUVO in Denver, Colorado.
Nice to talk to you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. BLAKE HARRISON (Senior Policy Analyst, National Conference of State Legislatures): Thank you. My pleasure.
CONAN: We were talking with the attorney general of Oklahoma. That is not the only state that has laws restricting access to cold medications.
Mr. HARRISON: No. In fact, most states have made some sort of effort in the last several years to try and control the spread in the home manufacture of methamphetamine, but they've done it in a variety of different ways. You know, the most common is to restrict the number of packages that can be purchased in a single visit. States are also expanding to make sure that if you did purchase in one place, that you couldn't just go next door and purchase from somewhere else. Creation of some--they're working on some databases to make sure that they can keep control of it, and also on the other side, to make sure that, if someone has a legitimate use for pseudoephedrine and these other drugs, they avoid a hassle.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Attorney General Edmonson was saying it was dramatically effective, this policy of putting the cold remedies behind the counter. I would assume it's also popular because it doesn't cost the states a lot of money.
Mr. HARRISON: Well, that approach does not seem to cost the states a lot of money, but they've been stressed in recent years for all the other issues associated with methamphetamine. As we talked about earlier, it is toxic stuff and it costs anywhere between $5,000 for a small lab to $150,000 to clean up. So states have been struggling with different ways to fund those cleanups, and some of the ways in states are to try and place those costs on the offenders and to try and recoup those costs, but, unfortunately, these meth addicts don't often have too much money, but when they do there are procedures in place to help offset those costs. But that's, you know, just sort of the beginning.
The other costs associated are helping the children involved and, you know, the treatment and incarceration costs that are associated with it as well.
CONAN: Treatment--we've had previous programs on this issue. Treatment is thought to be pretty difficult, and obviously, incarceration costs are considerable.
Mr. HARRISON: Yes, but most of the research seems to indicate that if you can get somebody into treatment instead of incarcerating them, you can save quite a lot of money, not only because it's cheaper than the average $25,000 a year to put somebody in detainment, but also because once they get treatment they're far less likely to become a repeat offender and end up back in the justice system.
CONAN: What about the idea of a federal law? Where does that stand?
Mr. HARRISON: There is the Combat Meth Act, Senate Bill 103, that was introduced by Senator Talent and Feinstein, and it is similar to the Oklahoma law in that it would make pseudoephedrine a Schedule V drug, and it would be kept behind a pharmacy counter and could only be sold by a pharmacist or pharmacist's technician. And it also would provide for resources for local law enforcement and prosecutors for the growing problem, money to help the children affected by the spread of meth, and other treatment options. But it's uncertain if that bill is going to pass this session, and it may not be ready for that yet. I think the states are doing a good job of tackling this problem. And, you know, we've talked about it before: The demographics of this drug are so different that I think it's probably a little bit better to leave it up to the states to find out what's the best approach for a specific area.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Mark, and Mark's with us from St. Louis, Missouri.
MARK (Caller): Hi.
MARK: My question was--we're talking about Sudafed, and everybody always seems to talk about Sudafed in controlling meth, or anything that has pseudoephedrine in it. I'm a criminal defense attorney here in St. Louis, and after, like, dealing with these cases--and they are horrible; it's the worst drug that anyone comes through here addicted to or anything with--the anhydrous ammonia is the fertilizer that's used to turn Sudafed, turn pseudoephedrine into, ultimately, methamphetamine. It seems so much easier to control than the vast amounts of pseudoephedrine that are out there. And when I've asked people, like FBI agents and others, about it, they say, `Well, farmers shouldn't have to, you know, give up a good fertilizer,' because it is a good fertilizer. It's cheap, it kills bugs and fertilizes the soil. But Sudafed's a cheap antihistamine that helps a lot of people who can't afford something more expensive or don't want to bother getting a doctor's prescription. And I was just wondering if, you know, any of these experts have any ideas on, you know, limiting the access to anhydrous ammonia, maybe using a different fertilizer, even if it's a little bit more expensive.
CONAN: Blake Harrison, are there any moves to control fertilizer as well as the cough medicines?
Mr. HARRISON: Yeah, there are a couple. First of all, some states have created felony penalties for people who steal this, which is an attempt to be a deterrent, a further deterrent from stealing it. Also, there are some pilot projects out there that are free programs where farmers and ranchers get very specialized locks. You know, these aren't mandated by anybody, but there's some growing support for these programs where they can lock down the ammonia. There's also another effort out there which--I don't know where it is right now, but there's a chemical that you can put in the ammonia that turns everything related to--that turns everything that is in contact with the pseudoephedrine and the ephedrine bright orange, so that if somebody uses methamphetamine that has this chemical in it, it'll turn your nose bright orange or it'll turn your arm bright orange. Who knows if that would actually stop some people, but there are different ideas out there. But there doesn't seem to be a push to come up with an alternative or ban the ammonia.
CONAN: Mark, thanks for the call.
MARK: Thank you.
CONAN: The government--the issues around methamphetamine are being discussed in the government buildings in Minnesota. Recently, the Minnesota House and Senate passed versions of a bill that would expand what states like Oklahoma are doing. Republican State Representative Jeff Johnson sponsored the House version of the bill. He's with us now by phone from his office in St. Paul.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
State Representative JEFF JOHNSON (Republican, Minnesota): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: What are the key provisions in your bill?
State Rep. JOHNSON: Well, we can start out with the Oklahoma provision. That's in there, the Schedule V provision, and we actually went a bit further on the floor. An amendment was added to require a prescription to get the pseudoephedrine tablets, at least. We have criminal provisions in the bill. We enhanced the penalties for meth manufacturing, and we have a new crime for putting children or vulnerable adults in danger because you're cooking meth. There is a restitution provision in there, requiring people that end up costing property owners or the government money to pay it back, although, as your last guest mentioned, that doesn't pan out all that often.
There's a rather extensive piece of the bill on property rights and responsibilities, especially regarding property that's been contaminated by a lab, and what property owners need to do about that. There is a couple new crimes regarding anhydrous ammonia, as was just discussed. And there's a revolving loan account for cities and counties, to provide money for them to clean up, and then there is some money in there for new agents, 10 new Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents in Minnesota that will deal specifically with meth, as well as some money for treatment and some money for education and jail beds, public defenders, etc. So it's a very comprehensive bill.
CONAN: How big is the problem of methamphetamine abuse in your state? I mean, is it--and is it restricted to rural areas?
State Rep. JOHNSON: It is--it's very significant. It's probably, outside of, you know, budget issues, the most important thing we'll deal with as a legislature this year. And it certainly is greater in the rural areas. They're feeling it more than we are. I represent the suburbs, although I grew up in rural Minnesota. They're feeling it more intensely than we are in the city, but it is starting to creep into our schools in suburban Minnesota, right around the Twin Cities, and we're certainly seeing some violent crime in the cities now that's related to meth.
CONAN: I understand on a national level something like 80 percent of methamphetamine is imported, or produced at big superlabs, as they're called.
State Rep. JOHNSON: Yes.
CONAN: And just 20 percent or so comes from these labs, which, as we mentioned, pose a whole other set of problems, including environmental problems and dangers to children and all that. Important to clean them up. But since 80 percent of the methamphetamine comes in from out of state, why does your bill address treatment on a relatively minor level?
State Rep. JOHNSON: Well, because, I mean, it is the labs. I mean, you mentioned part of it right there, that there's a whole different set of issues that arise from the labs. They are dangerous in and of themselves; you know the stories of the little kids getting, you know, practically burned alive by these things and the environmental costs that they lead to. but also, when I talk to our sheriff's departments, our police chiefs, especially in rural Minnesota, they say that they are absolutely overwhelmed, not necessarily just with meth, but with meth labs and having to find them and disassemble them and clean up after them, and they're spending 60, 70, 80 percent of their times dealing with lab issues. And if we can really decrease the number of labs that we have in Minnesota, even if, you know, a lot of meth is still coming in from the outside, it's going to free up time for our law enforcement officials to work on other issues, including just meth use. Plus, the 10 extra BCA agents are going to be dedicated to dealing with some of those meth issues of meth that's coming in from the outside.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Deb Rankin-Moore. `Living here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I'm outraged that meth is being cooked in ice-fishing houses out on our beautiful lakes. The ice-fishing houses are abandoned and some sink into the lakes when the ice melts.' I'd been unaware of that.
State Rep. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. And we've had many cases of that. And then what they do, after they make their meth, the excess is just poured down the hole into the lake. It's terrible. And, you know, we're seeing that a lot in rural Minnesota as well as just in all these, you know, open farmlands where there's an old shack. That's where a lot of these folks are making their meth.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is David. David's calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
DAVID (Caller): Yes. I'm a recovered meth addict, and I think one thing that needs to be done is to increase awareness of the dangers of use. Here in Tulsa, there's not a lot of public awareness of how dangerous a drug this can be, how devastating it can be to your life and those people around you.
CONAN: Jeff Johnson--and maybe Blake Harrison could also weigh on this point--I mean, we see all kinds of awareness campaigns on other kinds of drugs. `This is your brain on drugs,' that sort of thing. Is there anything going on to increase awareness of the dangers of methamphetamines?
State Rep. JOHNSON: In Minnesota, that is a piece of this bill, and it's probably not as much money as I would ideally like to see. But I happen to think it's one of the most important pieces, is getting into the schools in particular to make sure our kids know.
Again, I think in rural Minnesota, a lot of the kids, a majority of the kids, have gotten the message. I think in, you know, my suburban district, I go to the schools and talk to the kids, and a lot of them still think it's just fun and games, and we need to hit them over the head if we have to with some of this information.
CONAN: Blake Harrison, what about it, nationally?
Ms. HARRISON: Yeah. Several states have education programs. They're usually two-front. One is to educate the retailers to know what to look out for. And that can be a big help in jump-starting an investigation. The other ones are general education programs, like the gentleman mentioned, telling about the dangers and the problems associated with meth, but, very importantly, where to get help. That seems to be the information that's most needed by people. I point to Wyoming as a state that has a very good methamphetamine awareness program where they have `extreme meth makeover' as a big billboard with some before and after pictures that are very powerful. You know, it's just, where do you want to spend your money? And, you know, everybody has limited resources. But there are quite a few efforts out there.
CONAN: David, thanks for the call. And hang in there, OK?
DAVID: Oh, thank you very much.
CONAN: We're talking about new ways to tackle the problem of methamphetamines. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Jocelyn. Jocelyn's with us from Rockford, Illinois.
JOCELYN (Caller): Hi. As an addictions professional, I've been listening to, you know, all of you talk about all the things that we're going to do to try and cinch the available access to the raw components of this drug. And my question is that are we looking at this drug in relation to how we have attacked other drugs? You know, there's a part of me that almost seems like this the drug du jour, this is, you know, the issue of the moment. And what I'd like to see is the same kind of passion and the same kind of excitement to look at across the board--those drugs are still out there and that are still causing the kinds of problems that we see in our treatment centers every day.
CONAN: Jeff Johnson?
State Rep. JOHNSON: Well, and I think that's a very fair comment. And I don't think of it as the drug du jour, but it certainly is the drug issue, at least in Minnesota, that has got everyone's attention more so than the other drugs that are out there and causing all kinds of problems.
The big difference, I think, here is--well, it's maybe twofold. Number one, you can make this in your bathtub or in your sink or in the trunk of your car, or out in your icehouse, where, you know, yeah, you can grow pot, but you generally can't and easily make crack or coke or heroin or anything like that. And...
CONAN: I think the lights might be a problem, growing marijuana in an icehouse.
State Rep. JOHNSON: OK, fair enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
State Rep. JOHNSON: And the other thing is, it's cheap to get. It's a lot cheaper to get than buying some crack. So I happen to think at least right now it's a much bigger problem in Minnesota than any of the other drug problems that we have here, and it's probably why it's getting more attention right now.
CONAN: I wonder--let me put that to you, Blake Harrison. Crack cocaine--when that became an epidemic, a lot of people enacted laws that, well, several decades later, don't look all that wise. Are we overreacting to methamphetamine?
Ms. HARRISON: Well, I don't think we're overreacting. And the points are exactly right, that there are some unique issues with the availability of meth. But I also think that in the last decade or so, states have done a really good job of adding to the demand--I mean, reducing the demand by improving services for treatment. And that is sort of the larger picture. When we look at helping people get off of the drug, there's been lots of programs. And the increased use of drug courts has been extremely successful. And they're especially successful with methamphetamine addicts. This population isn't very susceptible to getting in to treatment voluntarily. But when you put this stick of the court behind them and give them the choice of prison or treatment, they'll go into treatment and have a lot bigger success rate.
So generally, I think that the legislation has done a good job of addressing the treatment side.
Ms. HARRISON: And that's across the board. That's not specific to methamphetamine.
CONAN: Jocelyn, thanks very much for the call. And I'd like to thank our guests. Jeff Johnson, Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, thanks very much.
State Rep. JOHNSON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And our thanks also to Blake Harrison, senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Appreciate your time today.
Ms. HARRISON: You're welcome.
CONAN: When we come back from a short break, singer-songwriter Mike Doughty joins us to play some songs from his new album and talk about stolen music.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.