For the past 30 years, Oklahoma law enforcement agencies have been playing an expensive and dangerous cat-and-mouse game with methamphetamine manufacturers.
“You’ve got people in prison right now thinking, ‘How can I get out and get smarter and better than the narcotics agents?’ And I was sitting around with my staff this morning at 10 o’clock, and we were talking about, ‘How can we outsmart them?'” Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics said recently.
Drug experts estimate one illegal meth lab can add up to $350,000 in taxpayer costs, including prison and jail time, law enforcement man hours and substance abuse treatment.
Until February, the federal government paid for meth lab clean-ups. But that money ran out in February, and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics will now foot the bill.
Last year, it costs $600,000 to clean up 556 labs. This year, Oklahoma spent one-third of that amount in one month—$230,000 for 202 labs in January.
The drug has only further stressed an overburdened courts and prison system. Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in female incarceration and has seen meth affect more incarcerated women than men. About 34 percent of the 9,000 women admitted to Oklahoma’s prisons from 2002 to 2008 were meth users. In that same six-year time span, 27 percent of the 51,000 male offenders were meth users.
Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics officials say it’s almost impossible to estimate how much money the agency has spent to fight meth in Oklahoma. Since 1998, the bureau and law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma have received at least $10 million in federal grant money to target meth. That is only a small portion of the millions of dollars spent to fight a drug once called an epidemic in Oklahoma.
Dub Turner spent more than 30 years kicking through doors and saw his first meth lab bust in 1981 in Enid.
“For years, it absorbed this agency,” said Turner, a former undercover agent. “All we were able to do was chase meth labs.”
It takes meth manufacturers about three years to figure out how to skirt whatever enforcement efforts the state throws at them, said Turner, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics program director.
For example, in 2004, Oklahoma became the first state to restrict pseudoephedrine-based medicines when it put many behind the counter, restricted consumers to nine grams every 30 days and started tracking who bought the restricted medicines.
The law contributed to a decrease from about 800 labs in 2004 to 150 in 2007.
But the number of labs began to rise in 2008, and by 2010, meth labs were back to about 800.
There are multiple reasons for the increase, authorities say. For one, more people are “smurfing,” or going as group to a supermarket or pharmacy and buying the legal amount of pseudoephedrine along with other precursors, such as lithium batteries and instant cold packs.
At the same time, more meth makers are using a technique known as “one pot” or “shake ‘n bake.” Cooks put several dangerous chemicals into an enclosed container, sometimes something as simple as a 2-liter soda bottle, and shake it.
“One pot” produces less meth but also takes less pseudoephedrine. Smurfers can get enough pseudoephedrine to make meth using this technique.
A 2007 ban on pseudoephedrine by the Mexican government also contributed to Oklahoma’s increase in meth production because it forced Mexican drug cartel to use other techniques to make meth, which resulted in a less potent product.
However, it hasn’t stopped the cartels from smuggling meth into Oklahoma, as law enforcement officials estimate that Mexican drug cartels import about 90 percent to 95 percent of the meth consumed in Oklahoma.
By severely restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, Oklahoma inadvertently created an opening for Mexican drug cartels, said Jim Akagi, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent in charge in the Oklahoma City District Office.
For one, Oklahoma already was at the crossroads of the nation’s drug trafficking and money-laundering interstate highway corridor, Akagi said.
Secondly, Oklahoma is only about 12 hours from Mexico’s border.
The high percentage of meth imported by drug cartels is a reason the Consumer Healthcare Products Association opposed a bill in the Oklahoma Legislature this year that would make pseudoephedrine tablets, such as sinus decongestants and allergy medicines Claritin-D, Zyrtec-D and Mucinex-D, prescription only.
Restricting pseudoephedrine-based products wouldn’t prevent cartels from bringing in more meth, said Elizabeth Funderburk, the association’s senior director for communications and media relations.
“Requiring a prescription for cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine will not be the silver bullet for addressing the methamphetamine problem at large,” Funderburk said. “As an industry, we’re committed to fighting the illegal sales and manufacturing of methamphetamine, but we realize that there are a large majority of consumers who rely on these medicines.”
Last year in Oklahoma, consumers bought about 1.5 million pseudoephedrine-based medicines, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association represents manufacturers and distributors of nonprescription over-the-counter medicines and nutritional supplements. The group reports that if half of the estimated 20 million Americans who use pseudoephedrine each year went to the doctor once a year for a prescription, they would spend $1 billion in health care costs for office visits alone, based on Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s estimate of a $100 average per doctor visit.
The association has started an effort against prescription pseudoephedrine legislation, with a slogan “Stop meth, not meds.”
The bill is currently dormant, which has law enforcement officers shaking their heads.Even though the bill wasn’t placed on the House’s agenda, it remains available for consideration next year.
Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Chouteau, sponsored the Oklahoma bill that would require a prescription for pseudoephedrine tablets.
“I will continue to work on the legislation and, if an appropriate Senate bill is available, I will seek an amendment that is consistent with the goals of HB 1235,” Sherrer said in an e-mail.
In his 23 years in law enforcement, OBN director Weaver has changed his philosophy on how to outsmart the bad guys.
As a young drug enforcement officer, he wanted to arrest as many as possible.Now, Weaver splits people associated with meth into two categories – the economic-based violator and the addiction-based violator.
Economic-based violators – the drug dealers and conspirators – should be put in prison as long as possible, he said. “They have one intent, and that’s to destroy communities in Oklahoma,” Weaver said.
But then there are the addicts. “What do we do with all those people?” Weaver said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this—and this is coming from an old enforcement guy – but we can’t. There are too many people. The system isn’t big enough.”
Weaver and other law enforcement officials offer a three-pronged solution to the meth problem—educate the public, provide drug treatment for addicts and continue to fight drug dealers.
Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas, researches the U.S.-Mexico border and patterns of use and abuse of meth.
Maxwell said she doesn’t foresee meth going away anytime soon because the drug has established itself much like cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin have.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” Maxwell said. “It worries me. I don’t see it going away, and we do know the Mexican cooks are searching elsewhere in the world for other stimulants they can use.”
John Duncan, former chief agent of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, helped author state and federal anti-drug policies, including the 2004 law.
Duncan said when Oklahoma passed its pseudoephedrine law in 2004, the number of meth labs went down, but meth use didn’t decline.
“We would love to see a drug-free Oklahoma, but we’re not seeing that,” Duncan said. “It’s sort of like the ocean – we see crest and waves, it comes up, it goes down, but I think it’s always present, and I think it’s always present in so far as the human need for altering our experience is present.”