January 28, 2010 10:03:00 AM
Jason Browne - [email protected]
The tide may soon turn in Mississippi''s battle against methamphetamines.
Bills have passed through judiciary committees in both the state House and Senate which would make ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, precursors to crystal meth, Schedule III drugs.
Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are found in common cold medications, are currently available over the counter in limited quantities in Mississippi. The change to Schedule III would make the substances available only with a doctor''s prescription.
Mike Perkins, lieutenant colonel of enforcement with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, says doctor shopping will become a problem if the bills become law, but that problem is preferable to chasing down meth labs.
"Anytime anyone gets a prescription from a doctor filled, the pharmacies report it immediately to an online Internet monitoring system. They can look at anybody to see what they''re getting. If people are getting an excessive amount of ephedrine, we know what it''s for," said Perkins.
Stamping out methamphetamine use has become Mississippi''s top drug enforcement problem. The MBN dealt with 586 meth labs and made 978 meth-related arrests in 2009, more than double the numbers for 2008.
By contrast, Oregon, which enacted similar legislation in 2006 to make ephedrine available only through prescriptions, saw the incidence of meth labs drop 96 percent to just 20 cases in 2009.
Perkins says methamphetamines are a statewide problem. It''s more severe in areas with a higher population, but it''s well established in rural areas like the Golden Triangle.
Columbus meth shoppers
Lowndes County Sheriff''s Office Narcotics Agent Joey Brackin says his office dealt with 343 meth-related cases in 2009, up 22 percent from 2008. Each of those cases included at least one arrest. In 2004 he says Lowndes dealt with more meth cases than any county in Mississippi.
"We do seem to have our share and maybe a little more," he said.
A big part of the problem, he says, is meth cooks from smaller communities with fewer drug stores coming to the area to purchase medicines containing ephedrine.
"(Small communities) might have one or two stores that sell it. And you can only buy so much without arousing suspicion," said Brackin. "Here we have around 10 different stores that you can go to two to three times a month without arousing suspicion."
A statewide database of past offenders and suspects helps to catch cooks after they buy the medicine, but Columbus continues to see an influx of purchasers. One local pharmacist said he had "a huge problem with people from Alabama coming here," before he stopped selling medications containing ephedrine.
"If you live in West Alabama, where are you going to get it? We are the big city," said Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John. "People consider us to be small, but we''re big compared to other places. It''s easier to get lost in Columbus than their own little towns."
St. John adds that many visitors to Columbus who thought they could buy ephedrine anonymously have ended up in jail, but it''s impossible to know how many manufacturers are shopping locally.
"(Manufacturers) are driving many miles to go to many different stores and hoping we don''t know what they''re doing," said Pickens County, Ala., Sheriff David Abston.
Abston says laws are already stricter in Mississippi than in Alabama, limiting the amount of epehedrine-containing medicines a person can purchase in one stop.
"For the life of me, I don''t know why (the laws) are not stronger here," he said.
But not all pharmacists are being inundated with requests for medicines with ephedrine. Bill Portera, pharmacy manager of Super Save On Drugs in Starkville says no suspicious customers visit his store.
"We don''t have the traffic here large stores have. And the perception among the population is the selection would be larger and they''ll be more inconspicuous in larger stores," said Portera.
Gene Coleman, pharmacy manager at New Hope Pharmacy and former Columbus Ward 3 city councilman, says his store gets a few suspicious customers each week, but his staff knows the clientele well enough to avoid those sales.
"We carry a limited supply (of medication containing ephedrine) to take care of our patients. And for those that we don''t know, we might not have it in stock," said Coleman.
''Labs'' pose dangers
After the ingredients are purchased, methamphetamines can be produced virtually anywhere. The multi-step, or "Nazi" method involves an open flame. The "Shake and Bake" method involves putting all ingredients in one container and allowing a chemical reaction.
Brett Watson, commander of narcotics investigations for the Oktibbeha County Sheriff''s Office, says he''s seen labs in houses, trailers and even vehicles.
"We''ve seen some well-concealed and some not so well-concealed," said Watson.
Both methods are dangerous and prone to chemical explosions. Watson says one arrest last year was made after a man using the "Shake and Bake" method was burned when the bottle he was mixing in exploded.
A serious problem emerging from the state''s meth problem is children being exposed to chemicals or even injured in explosions from their parents'' labs, Perkins said.
"We took over 100 children out of meth labs this year with respiratory problems or who have been burnt. It is killing kids," he said.
In the Golden Triangle, law enforcement officials are doing the best they can to stem the tide. The OCSO charged five individuals with manufacture of meth and seven more with conspiracy to manufacture in 2009.
Clay County Sheriff''s Office Chief Deputy Eddie Scott said incidences of labs are down in Clay, but possession charges are up.
All officials agree the new legislation will put a significant dent in the incidence of meth manufacture across the state if it is voted into law.