Law enforcement dealing with growing meth problem

Law enforcement dealing with growing meth problem

Posted: Friday, March 4, 2011 9:07 pm

By CHRIS MENEES
Staff Reporter
Meth is a growing problem in Tennessee.
In fact, it was announced just this week that Tennessee’s meth lab incidents have jumped 41 percent since last year and the state is currently leading the nation in meth lab busts and seizures.
To make matters worse, federal funding for the cleanup of hazardous methamphetamine labs has run out — leaving local law enforcement agencies in search of funding options for departments which are already struggling financially.
The problem and possible solutions took center stage Thursday when top law enforcement officials from the 27th Judicial District Drug & Violent Crime Task Force — as well as sheriffs and several police chiefs from Obion and Weakley counties — held a late-morning press conference at the Union City Municipal Building courtroom.
District Attorney General Tommy Thomas said the purpose of the gathering was to discuss problems associated with the illegal drug methamphetamine and potential legislation to control pseudoephedrine sales that could help law enforcement in curbing a problem which has permeated society.
The majority of the press conference was led by Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder, who was in Nashville last Friday for a meeting of the Tennessee Meth Task Force’s board of directors. Another meeting was scheduled for today.
Vastbinder said the board has been reviewing several different options to help ease the financial burden on cities and counties across the state for meth lab cleanup. He outlined options that could include utilizing a regional bio-hazard dumpster to allow law enforcement officers in a certain radius to do their own lab cleanup and take the materials to the dumpster; asking the DEA to adopt any large meth lab cases, which would result in the DEA paying for the cleanup out of that agency’s seizure money; or local law enforcement agencies contacting a bio-hazard contract cleanup company and then seeking reimbursement through a federal environmental agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, he said the DEA’s funding would likely not go far either, and the EPA has already declined being able to offer assistance. Meth lab cleanup can run from $2,500 to $30,000, depending on the size of the toxic mess, and cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies and city governments don’t have the funding available.
Vastbinder said he believes the best option locally would be the regional dump site to dispose of the hazardous trash associated with meth lab cleanup. He said Tennessee spends, on average, a minimum of about $2,500 for a lab cleanup, compared to about $500 in Kentucky, where regional dump sites are utilized.
Proposed legislation
In their fight against meth, the law enforcement officials are urging Tennessee lawmakers to approve proposed legislation that would make pseudoephedrine a schedule drug and would require a prescription to purchase products that contain pseudoephedrine — a decongestant used as an ingredient to make meth.
Vastbinder said pharma-ceutical companies claim the legislation would place a burden on the average citizen because they would have to see a doctor and obtain a prescription for drugs that contain pseudoephedrine. However, he said the proposed bill actually states that a pharmacist can prescribe the drug at the pharmacy.
In addition, Vastbinder said there are dozens of other types of drugs that do the same thing as pseudoephedrine but don’t contain the chemical. He said it’s basically a pill used for colds and a runny nose, “not the cure for cancer,” and there are many other options available for the same purpose.
He said states which have made pseudoephedrine a schedule drug have already seen dramatic decreases in the number of meth labs in their states. Among those states is Mississippi, which has now resulted in neighboring Tennessee seeing an increase in “smurfers” — organized drug-makers who are crossing the state line to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to buy pseudoephedrine. They are named for the Smurf cartoon characters who worked in unity.
Vastbinder said law enforcement also wants to see a real-time tracking system to show immediate purchases of pseudoephedrine, which would allow for faster tracking, compared to a manual system that can take several days for the information to be entered into the system.
The Tennessee Pharm-acists Association opposes requiring a prescription to buy the pseudoephedrine products and supports a competing measure that would create a real-time electronic system to track all sales of pseudoephedrine.
However, Assistant District Attorney Jim Cannon, director of the 27th Judicial District Drug Task Force, said just tracking the sale of pseudoephedrine is no good. He said legislators have already limited jail funding and if law enforcement officers aren’t able to put away all of the offenders, the only solution is to make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance and prevent methamphetamine from being made.
Vastbinder said law enforcement officials don’t feel like the tougher legislation will be penalizing anyone but will actually save lives in the long-run, considering the dangers associated with the volatile drug methamphetamine. In addition to cleanup risks and costs, there are also health hazards associated with the chemicals used to make the drug and the high cost of treatment to victims burned in meth lab explosions.
Thomas said making pseudoephedrine a controlled substance may be a minor inconvenience to consumers, but he feels the trade-off will be extremely beneficial to Tennessee’s families as law enforcement agencies work to stop illegal drug activity.
Union City Police Chief Joe Garner said the legislation is a pressing issue and law enforcement officers need for legislators to deal with it now rather than waiting any longer.
Fighting the war
Thomas said there is no guarantee Tennessee will ever completely win the war on illegal drugs, but the proposed pseudoephedrine legislation could go a long way in helping law enforcement.
Vastbinder agreed that the war on drugs is a tough battle to win.
“But we can let them know we’re in the fight,” he said, adding that law enforcement officers must place themselves on the offensive and be pro-active in their efforts.
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by e-mail at cmenees@ucmessenger.com.

Published in The Messenger 3.4.11

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