Methamphetamine lab seizures rose nationally again in 2011, further evidence the powerfully addictive and dangerous drug is maintaining a tight grip on the nation's heartland, according to an Associated Press survey of the nation's top meth-producing states.
Missouri regained the top national spot for lab seizures in 2011 with 2,096, the AP confirmed through the survey that also found Tennessee was second with 1,687, followed by Indiana with 1,437, Kentucky with 1,188 and Oklahoma with 902.
The total for Missouri lines up with preliminary numbers AP obtained this week from the Drug Enforcement Administration, whose data appeared to show meth lab seizures remained about even during the past two years. But the totals for each of the other states surveyed by AP reveal the numbers are higher than the federal data.
Combined, the numbers indicate nationwide meth lab seizures rose at least 8.3 percent in 2011 compared with 2010.
Experts blame the continued increase on the drug's addictiveness and the growing popularity of the meth-making shortcut known as "shake-and-bake," in which the drug is concocted quickly in a soda bottle. The method results in smaller labs, but more of them.
Clandestine meth labs are most common in the Midwest and South. U.S. users who don't make the drug themselves get it from Mexico, but experts say the drug made in homemade labs is more addictive than the often-diluted product that crosses the border.
"When they're manufacturing it locally they're making the purest form and the strongest form they can make," said Sgt. Niki Crawford of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Team.
Missouri had been the nation's No. 1 meth-producing state every year from 2003 to 2009 until falling behind Tennessee for one year. In 2011, a single Missouri county had more busts than Texas, Florida and California combined. Jefferson County, which is near St. Louis, tallied 253 seizures; the three states had 219.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull attributed the state's consistently high seizure rate to law enforcement agencies' focus on addressing the meth problem.
Police in many Missouri counties stake out pharmacies and watch for "pill shoppers" who go from store to store to purchase decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, a vital meth ingredient, now that tighter state restrictions have limited how much of the product they can buy in one place at one time. Many Missouri agencies also have officers focused solely on meth.
"Is Missouri that much worse or does Missouri just take a more aggressive approach? I think Missouri law enforcement just aggressively deals with the issue," Hull said.
Indeed, Missouri and Kentucky are among a handful of high-meth states that developed their own programs to train local police to better handle meth cleanup and take the hazardous waste to container sites placed around the state.
The programs helped those states continue with busts after millions of dollars in federal funding set aside for cleanup suddenly was cut in February 2011. Many local police agencies in states without their own programs all but stopped seeking out meth labs because the local governments couldn't afford cleanup costs.
An AP analysis in August found the number of labs seized plummeted by at least a third in several key meth-producing states within six months. The federal money then was restored late last year.
"When we lost the funding Feb. 22 lab seizures fell approximately 75 percent," said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Meth Task Force. "They stayed down for the next four months."
Tennessee adopted a state container program similar to Missouri's and Kentucky's, which took effect July 1. "Then lab seizures rose 73 percent," Farmer said.
Farmer projected that if not for the loss of cleanup funds, Tennessee would have had more than 2,300 seizures last year. The state already had 200 seizures this year through Feb. 7.
At least three-quarters of meth made in the U.S. is now believed to come in small "shake-and-bake" batches due to the pseudoephedrine sales crackdowns. In some states, the figure is even higher.
"I would comfortably say 99 percent," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.
The AP's tally of the top meth states is unofficial because while the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) compiles meth lab seizure data, some states are slow to report complete figures and final data for 2011 won't be made public until mid-year, said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.
However, the Missouri State Highway Patrol has access to the preliminary EPIC lab seizure data and provided it to AP this week.
That EPIC data showed Illinois sixth in lab seizures with 584. The remainder of the top 10 were: Iowa (382), Michigan (352), North Carolina (340) and South Carolina (265).