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TN ranks second in meth lab busts

10:41 AM, Jan 22, 2010   |    comments
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By Nicole Young, The Tennessean

Tennessee meth makers are increasingly finding ways around laws meant to keep them on police radar and away from the ingredients.

Methamphetamine lab seizures in Tennessee reached 1,432 in 2009 - second only to Missouri, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The total is the highest since the passage of a 2005 law forcing pharmacies to lock away cold and sinus pills and keep records on and limit per-person sales of those pills. It also requires doctors to report meth-making injuries.

Police say the resurgence is largely the result of creative tactics such as "smurfing" - using other people to buy the ingredients - plus more mobile cooking methods that require less space and cooking time.

Tennessee's location always made it attractive for producers, said Tommy Farmer, director of the TBI's Methamphetamine Task Force.

"Our state borders more states than almost any other, and is intersected by highways that stretch from Canada to Key West and the Pacific to the Atlantic," he said.

Farmer said meth busts became commonplace in the past decade and peaked in 2004, with 1,559 busts, just before the passage of the anti-meth law. Police started seeing the new cooking method early last year. It's called "shake and bake" or "one pot" because of its simplicity.

The drug can be made in a 2-liter soda bottle, doesn't require an open flame - a chemical reaction provides the "cooking" - and is ready in about an hour. Older methods required an open flame and took four to six hours.

In Williamson County, the state's wealthiest county, officers say they find used labs in roadside trash dumps. They made 18 lab seizures last year, the most in Middle Tennessee.

"About 99 percent of the labs we find in Williamson County are in rural areas," said Joey Kimble, director of the 21st Judicial District Drug Task Force, which includes Williamson, Hickman, Lewis and Perry counties. "I think more people are using, not just in Williamson County, but everywhere, and I would expect this problem to keep growing, especially when one considers how addictive meth is and how easy and cheap it is to make."

'Greed got to me'

A meth manufacturer can spend $100 or less for all the chemicals needed to produce the drug and reap a profit of $600 to $900 for selling just 7 to 10 grams of it, Kimble said.

Mother of four and recovering addict Daphne Foxx knows as much from personal experience.

The native of Madisonville, near the Smoky Mountains, spent eight years addicted to meth. She cooked it, sold it and used it. At the peak of her addiction, Foxx needed about $500 per day to finance her habit.

"I was hooked the first day I tried it," Foxx, 40, said. "I just couldn't get high enough."

As a meth cook, Foxx worked in garages and campsites all over Monroe, McMinn and Meigs counties, often with potential dealers tagging along to learn how to start their own operations. Her worst memory, she says, was the day a meth lab exploded one room away from her.

"Plastic had melted on this guy's arm, and he was more concerned about getting the fire out," she said. "That should have been enough to make me stop, but it wasn't. Greed got to me. ... I think that's why a lot of people start making it - they know there's money in it."

Six arrests for dealing and jail stretches up to seven months long persuaded Foxx to get clean. She has been sober for 2½ years and is in recovery at Mending Hearts, a transitional housing program in Nashville.

Arrests are up

In the wake of the higher numbers, police are stepping up their efforts. More than 130 additional officers were meth-certified in the past year. And, because of education campaigns about the drug, Farmer said, the public responded with more than 1,000 tips on possible meth lab locations through the state's hotline.

And Farmer said most meth lab seizures result in arrests. "We had over 1,200 arrests last year," he said. "To me, that number is significant because we're getting more people that are involved in manufacturing meth. We're dismantling these groups."

In McMinn County, where lab seizures rose from 55 in 2008 to 150 last year, Sheriff's Lt. Bill Farmer (who's not related to the TBI's Tommy Farmer) said most of the busts made by police come from citizen tips. "Sometimes we work two or three labs per day," he said. "We get tips every day. Yesterday, I had about five people tell me about different spots they suspect might be linked to meth production."

Bill Farmer and five other meth-certified officers often visit churches, civic groups and schools to talk about meth and its dangers.

"Every county and every community has the same problems," he said. "We're just trying to be more aggressive. We see it as a good thing making all the busts - it means we're making a dent in the problem. At least we're trying."

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