DEA Report: Meth Lab Busts Declining

Meth lab busts are on the decline, according to a new Drug Enforcement Administration report.

DEA statistics show a downward trend of discovery and seizure of the clandestine methamphetamine labs; the number seized in 2004 rose to a whopping 17,834, but for the first quarter of 2007, the DEA reported the takedown of only 1,416 labs.

While the methamphetamine epidemic started on the West Coast, it rapidly swept across the country and has surged in the Midwest. Data for 2006 showed that the drug has continued its foothold in the region, with Missouri reporting the highest number of labs. The statistics also show that DEA and local law enforcement dismantled 1,288 clandestine labs last year in that state, along with 778 in Illinois, and 737 in Indiana.

Methamphetamine has been a growing problem because of the stimulant's highly addictive nature, and the ease with which it's manufactured.

Producing the drug in the smaller labs often places nearby residents at risk from the noxious fumes and toxic byproducts left behind. When responding to a concealed lab, DEA agents and law enforcement often don HAZMAT suits to more safely deal with the process of cleaning up the toxic sites. The agency says cleaning costs an average of $2,000-$4,000 per site.

The illegal labs cook up the drug from a variety of widely available household chemicals and over-the-counter medicines, such as cold and allergy medications. Some of those medications contain certain forms of the decongestant pseudoephedrine, vital ingredients in meth production.

In attempts to combat meth -- and the availability of that key component -- at least 44 states and the federal government have passed a series of laws limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine-containing medications individuals can purchase at one time.

The federal law was tacked on to controversial anti-terrorism legislation -- the Patriot Act -- which was reauthorized in March 2006.

DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said that state and federal government anti-meth laws make it harder to buy the key ingredients, but that "when it becomes so restrictive and they [addicts] can't get it, they turn elsewhere."

The "elsewhere," in the case of meth, is often Mexico or Asia.

According to officials at the National Drug Intelligence Center, foreign traffickers' ability to channel the drug to the United States is based on several factors, including access to the precursor chemicals needed to make high-quality methamphetamine.

The 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment, published in November 2006, noted that Mexican drug trafficking networks have been increasing their transport of meth into the United States The methamphetamine produced in Mexico is often made in large labs -- dubbed "superlabs" -- which are usually in remote locations, making them hard to find.

"We are working with the Mexican government, especially through training with law enforcement to attack the superlabs." Courtney said.

Courtney also pointed to increased experience in dealing with the producers as a key factor in the clampdown. "Law enforcement is more aware of what to look for now," he said.

Authorities -- and neighbors -- have become more aware of indicators of the labs, such as noxious odors, people buying certain chemicals in large quantities, frequent chemical disposal, or houses with blacked out windows.

Although the DEA's figures show that fewer labs are being discovered, data on meth abuse and addiction indicate it's still a serious problem.

Casual use of methamphetamine appears to be stable, but recent Justice Department reporting shows an increase in the number of meth-related drug treatment program admissions and methamphetamine-dependent individuals nationwide.

In 2004, 129,079 individuals were admitted to facilities for meth treatment compared to 82,113 in 2001.