Eastern Missouri: Ground Zero for Meth Junkies

One of the most addicting and damaging drugs is making a slow and vicious return. Methamphetamine, commonly referred to as meth, is back.

It was thought meth's wave of destruction had crested several years ago, but if eastern Missouri is any indication, there's still a lot of work to be done.

In 2005, new laws in Missouri put pseudoephedrine, the cold medicine and the crucial ingredient used to make meth, behind pharmacy counters. Customers who wanted to purchase the drug had to submit photo identification and sign a log as part of the government's effort to track potential abusers.

At the time, these new measures were hailed as a definitive blow to the meth trade.

Now, those efforts appear to have been stymied.

Meth RaidPlay

'Smurfing' for Meth

Sgt. Jason Grellner, who leads a squad of narcotics agents with the Franklin County, Mo., Sheriff's Department, said that, after a two-and-a-half-year lull, the junkies struck back.

"You build a better mouse trap, you get a smarter mouse," he said. "What the pill shoppers have finally figured out is, 'There's more of us than there are the cops, there's too many locations.'"

In a process called "smurfing," abusers are hiding their tracks by buying pseudoephedrine at multiple stores, across multiple counties.

In eastern Missouri, ground zero in the meth war, pharmacies are inundated.

Clarissa Hall, a pharmacy owner in Franklin County, said she believes that 80 percent of the pseudoephedrine purchases in her store ultimately go to meth users.

"It's a real problem," she said.

To catch the smurfers, Grellner's team of narcotics agents stakes out pharmacies in unmarked vehicles, tracking each purchase of the common cold medicine.

"We got an officer who will sit inside, be in and around the pharmacy, just kind of hanging out looking for known meth cooks that we know," Grellner said while sitting in a car parked outside a Wal-Mart pharmacy.

He and his team spotted a repeat abuser purchasing pseudoephedrine and pursued him in a car chase that wound through town.

Ultimately, the agents were unable to pull him over and he slipped away.

"Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't," Grellner said. "Maybe he's not cooking today. Maybe he is. But he'll live another day, and we'll see him another day."

'I'm Not Proud of It'

In the meantime, however, there are others to pursue.

Across town, a tip led Franklin County officer Darryl Balleydier and his team to a mobile home. When they approached the trailer, children were milling around outside.

Inside, officers said they found meth and the materials used to make and transport it. An undercover agent, whose name is being withheld for his protection, pulled a small plastic bag from a drawer in the bedroom.

"Here's an example," the officer said. "It's a corner bag, or basically, a regular sandwich bag, and the corner's been ripped out of it, which is how they'll package this."

As the house search continued, the suspect, John (his real name is being withheld to protect his privacy), stood anxiously in the doorway, in handcuffs.

"I'm not proud of it," John said, when asked about the police searching his home. "Not at all. I guess it's my turn, you know."

He said he'd been using meth for 20 years. Meth, he said, is an escape from life.

"I use it as a tool. I try not to abuse it as a drug, because people who do use it as drugs, they do ignorant s***," he said, pacing back and forth as he spoke. "I just, I don't approve of that."

The only way to stop the rising wave of meth, Grellner said, is to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

Oregon now requires a prescription in order to buy the decongestant, a move that has reportedly helped cut down on meth labs in the state. Other states have yet to implement this strategy, which police say has encountered resistance from the pharmaceutical industry.

In a statement to ABC News, Elizabeth Funderburk, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, said, "Medicines containing pseudoephedrine serve an important health care need by bringing much needed relief to consumers.

"We also believe that a well-funded federal program should be established to help states implement electronic tracking measures to address law enforcement concerns, while maintaining consumer access to these medicines without the added costs required by a prescription mandate," continued Funderburk, who is a spokesperson for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

So, for now, the fight continues.