Nov. 30, 2011 -- 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.
"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.
One new and difficult problem for police is the portable one-pot meth labs that the task force called "shake and bakes." Joel Cunigan, an Operation UNITE taskforce detective, said this method is so popular because the products needed to quickly make a small batch of meth are readily available with a few visits to local stores.
By mid-afternoon, the task force found that the Walgreens pharmacy was so crowded with people buying cold medicines with psuedoephedrine that the store actually sold out. Smoot speculated that about 70 percent of the people legally purchasing the pseudoephedrine that day would probably use it to illegally manufacture methamphetamine.
When officers receive a report that two men who were lined up at the pharmacy counter inside were talking about which kind of pseudoephedrine to buy and then bought two packages each, the task force decided to follow them. After leaving the Walgreens, the men drove to a nearby Wal-Mart and went to the pharmacy again.
Moments later, the police pulled them over for running two red lights. A search of the car's trunk turned up numerous ingredients needed to make meth. The raw chemicals in a meth lab are extremely volatile, so another team was called to the scene to neutralize and dispose of the ingredients found in the trunk -- it costs the London police department $2,000 for every routine decontamination.
The two men, who were arrested on multiple drug charges, both pleaded not guilty.
For all their arrests, the officers of the London task force insisted they cannot stamp out meth until the active ingredient, pseudoephedrine, becomes much more difficult to get.
"There's 15 boxes of medication behind the counters at these pharmacies," Smoot said. "We need them to be a controlled substance -- prescription."
The only two states, Oregon and Mississippi, that now require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, have reported a dramatic decline in meth labs. In Oregon, busts are down 96 percent since 2006 and in Mississippi, busts are down 66 percent since the law took hold last year.
But the over-the-counter remedies for cold and allergy relief make up a $4 billion business, and the pharmaceutical industry has been fighting state efforts for stricter legislation. In a statement to "Nightline," Consumer Healthcare Products Association said: "Efforts to impose a prescription mandate will not stop meth abuse and will punish the more than 18 million American families who rely upon these popular, safe and legal non-prescription cold and allergy medicines for relief."
Chain drug stores also oppose the prescription-only approach. Kathleen Jaeger, senior vice president of Pharmacy Care and Patient Advocacy for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, told "Nightline" that community pharmacies believe that a mandate would "take us in the wrong direction."
"It's going to not only unduly burden physicians, unduly burden consumers, needlessly drive up health care costs, at the same time really won't reduce methamphetamine abuse," Jaeger said. "We believe the more appropriate and more effective solution -- a proven solution in 19 other states -- is electronic tracking."
But the detectives of Operation UNITE say electronic tracking is ineffective in curbing the problem they see every day.
Often times, the day's work drags into the night. Over the same hills that moonshiners once ran, police chased tips of yet more meth lab reports while "Nightline" cameras followed. At one residence, they found an active lab and the finish product. In the squalid home littered with needles and powder, police removed a two-year-old child.'
"As long as the pharmacy's doors are open," said Smoot, "we could make arrests."