Methamphetamine busts reached a record high last year in the state because of new methods of cooking the drug and more organized efforts to access it, according to N.C.Attorney General Roy Cooper and county sheriffs.
Meth lab busts totaled 344 in 2011 - a 57 percent increase from 2006, when new state laws restricted the purchase of pseudoephedrine, meth's key ingredient.
Cooper said the laws are working because the number of large-scale meth operations is down, but busts have risen with the popularity of the simpler and cheaper "one pot," or "shake and bake" method.
"It has escalated to the point where it accounts for about half of the labs we bust,"Cooper said, noting that the state's first one-pot lab bust occurred in 2009.
The one-pot method requires fewer ingredients, which are mixed in two-liter soda bottles instead of the traditional, unsealed makeshift beakers. Though small, the bottles are still considered labs in the eyes of the law and are just as dangerous.
Explosions from the bottles typically aren't as big, but are more frequent.
"You should see the addicts that come through our hospital out here," said Jimmy Thornton, Sampson County Sheriff. "They're strung out, and half the time they come in having blown holes in themselves."
Sampson had the eighth-most busts last year with 11. That's an improvement for a county that, in 2008, had 13 busts in two months and about 30 for that year. But Thornton says the tides again are changing. He's seen one-pot busts skyrocket in recent months.
"We've only slowed them with the restrictions. (The buyers) are learning to organize, to communicate with others from across the state and across the South so they can coordinate their Sudafed (a brand of pseudoephedrine) buys without getting caught," he said.
Burke County showed the most activity last year with 34 meth lab busts. Watauga County was second with 22.
Wake County has busted 10 meth labs in the last decade, Sheriff Donnie Harrison says. But Wake's neighbors to the east are experiencing a surge.
Last week, two men in Johnston County were arrested for meth trafficking. Deputies seized about 70 vessels used to cook meth, capable of producing pounds of the substance.
Johnston tied Anson County for the sixth-most meth busts (13) in 2011. It has five busts this year already.
While meth busts help communities, they're risky for local authorities. Meth makers are often armed and their chemicals unstable.
"(They are) truly dangerous," said Capt. Craig Fish, head of narcotics at the Johnston County Sheriff's Department.
Lab cleanup is costly
They are also costly to taxpayers.
Most meth labs cost between $3,000 and $10,000 to clean up, Cooper said.
After suspects are arrested, officers survey the scene and try to separate all the volatile chemicals. That can take hours, and the officers have to wear Tyvek suits and masks in sometimes-scorching temperatures. An outside company is then hired to cart off and dispose of the chemicals. And if a meth lab is inside a building, property owners have a checklist of decontamination tasks before the building can be used again.
Until funding dried up and laws changed in February 2011, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration paid for each cleanup.
Now, local law enforcement agencies foot the bill - something Cooper plans to change.
"Agencies that make the bust shouldn't be punished with a multi-thousand-dollar cleanup," he said.
By April, the State Bureau of Investigation will open meth response and containment stations in four regions of the state, Cooper said.
Local agencies will then be able to request help from the SBI, which will dispatch a team of experts to dispose of the meth lab.
"This will take the financial burden off of the local agencies," Cooper said.
The stations are awaiting approval from federal safety inspectors.
New pharmacy network
Cooper hopes the number of meth labs will shrink with a law enacted this year that requires pharmacies to use an electronic tracking system.
The system, called theNational Precursor Log Exchange, allows pharmacies to see whether someone has bought his pseudoephedrine limit.
A state law enacted in 2006 prohibit the purchase of more than two packages at once, or more than three packages within 30 days. The law also requires all products containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to be placed behind a counter.
More than two-thirds of North Carolina pharmacies are now using the system, which links 18 states. As of last week, the system had helped stop more than 5,000 illegal purchases, Cooper said.
Cooper: We can do more
Despite North Carolina's proactive approach, Cooper and others think the state should be doing more to stymie meth use.
Fish and Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell have been working with prosecutors to ban suspects arrested in meth busts from buying any pseudoephedrine while out on bail awaiting trial. About 96 percent of meth users will take the drug again after they're arrested, Fish said. His detectives have busted many of the same suspects repeatedly.
They want those convicted of using meth or running a meth lab to be banned from buying the drug again.
Such actions are not out of the question. Cooper also thinks state lawmakers should consider making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.
"It would be expensive to do, but it may come down to that sooner or later," Cooper said. "We have to keep up, because (the users) will always be one step ahead."