Meth Labs in America's Heartland: 'Nightline' Investigates Rampant Meth Abuse in Kentucky

PHOTO: Fighting methamphetamine production has become an all-consuming battle for sheriffs deputy Dan Smoot, who leads a taskforce in London, Ky., called Operation UNITE.
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Methamphetamine abuse is exploding across rural America now that cooks with the right elements can set up shop virtually anywhere, and in Kentucky, meth labs have nearly tripled in the past three years.

Fighting methamphetamine production has become an all-consuming battle for deputy director Dan Smoot, who leads a taskforce in London, Ky., called Operation UNITE. "Nightline" was granted access, cameras rolling, as a team of 30 police officers, most of whom were undercover and in unmarked vehicles, set out at 9 a.m. one morning, targeting local drug stores, including a Walgreens, a CVS and a Wal-Mart.

Credit: Courtesy Operation UNITE

"The one single ingredient they must have to produce methamphetamine is pseudoephedrine," Smoot said.

Pseudoephedrine is found in over-the-counter cold medicines such as Sudafed. While these pills may provide relief to cold sufferers, to criminals who are in the business of making meth, these pills are gold. Meth-makers legally buy as much of the raw product as they can at local pharmacies and drug stores.

A federal law designed to crack down on methamphetamine abuse sets a hard limit on pseudoephedrine: No more than nine grams, or about seven packs, per customer each month. But to get around that limit, which is electronically tracked by drug stores in certain states, meth users will team up so that each can buy the maximum at once. Smoot explained that it's a practice known as "smurfing," named after the little blue cartoon characters, Smurfs, who are small, but mighty as a team.

Inside a Walgreens, an undercover cop tracked three women who arrived together in a red Monte Carlo. The officer reported back to Smoot that all three purchased pseudoephedrine and he believes one of them shoplifted before they crowded into the women's bathroom.

When the women came out of the Walgreens and drove out of the parking lot, the officers tailed them. Moments later, the women pulled into a trailer park, where they were confronted by police. At first, one of the women told the officers they just needed cold medicine for a "bad cold."

Another denied that she paid one of the younger women to buy the medicine for her, shelling out $80 for a $7 pack of generic Sudafed, police said. The 1,000 percent mark-up on black market cold medicine is typical of what they see. Police then searched the car and quickly turned up what they said was incriminating evidence.

"So far we found a meth pipe they use to smoke their meth in and we found some marijuana and we found some pills," one of the officers said.

When confronted, the three women's stories didn't add up. One of them was arrested on drug charges and another was arrested for the possession of meth and driving under the influence, but her case was eventually dismissed. The third woman in the car was not charged, but police arrested a fourth woman at a trailer park residence for outstanding warrants.

"The classic case of 'smurfing,'" Smoot said. "The one lady had recruited two of the younger girls to go around to the pharmacies and purchase pseudo, and that's what we saw in the store. She gave the one girl money."

Smoot added that this sort of situation is an "everyday occurrence" in Kentucky.

"We're now No. 3 in the United States of America for production," he said.

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