RALEIGH — The number of methamphetamine lab busts in North Carolina has nearly doubled in the last two years, largely because of a new method of making the highly addictive drug in two-liter plastic bottles, state Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday.
Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation shut down 460 meth labs last year, compared with 344 in 2011 and 235 in 2010.
In addition, more children are being affected by abuse of the drug, Cooper said. Last year, law officers removed 120 children from homes in the state where meth labs were found, up from 82 the year before.
Children suffer from exposure to dangerous chemicals that may explode and cause fires, Cooper said. They suffer abuse and neglect from [their parents] who are addicted to meth.
Meth is a stimulant that can be smoked, injected or swallowed to create a quick, intense euphoria. The drug is considered more addictive than crack cocaine, and it keeps its users awake for days at a time, during which they may hallucinate and become agitated, paranoid and violent.
At a press conference, Cooper displayed some of the chemicals and equipment used to make the drug: liquid drain opener, size A batteries, starter fluid, Morton salt, pseudoephedrine and an array of plastic water and pop bottles with plastic tubing dangling from a hole drilled in the caps. Those plastic bottles are crude one-pot or shake-and-bake meth labs.
A plastic bottle acts as a vessel that a meth cook will fill with a solvent, bits of a lithium strip from a battery, lye, pseudoephedrine and other chemicals, said Todd Duke, the SBIs special agent in charge of the team that responds to meth labs.
If you can follow the recipe on a box of brownies, you can follow this, Duke said.
In 2011, the new methods of cooking the drug accounted for about half the states meth lab busts. Last year, one-pot labs accounted for 73 percent of meth lab busts in North Carolina, Cooper said Tuesday.
It could have been worse. A year ago, North Carolina pharmacies began using an electronic tracking system called the National Precursor Log Exchange to help block illegal sales of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth thats often found in medications such as Sudafed.
Cooper said electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases prevented an increase in larger labs and helped block 54,000 illegal purchases that could have been used to make an additional 277 pounds of meth.
In 2006, the legislature began requiring pharmacies to put over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter, resulting in a drop in meth lab busts.
The number of large meth labs found in North Carolina has remained steady over the years, and they are still mostly relegated to rural areas.
But since the one-pot method of cooking the drug was first seen by state law officers in 2009, meth labs are increasingly found in urban and suburban areas as well. With the manufacture of the drug more mobile, police now find the crude concoctions in apartments, suburban homes, hotel rooms and even cars.
Rural counties still see the largest number meth lab busts. Wilkes County, in the foothills of the mountains, led the state with 59 labs last year, followed by Wayne with 27, Catawba with 26 and Burke with 24. Agents also uncovered 15 labs in Johnston, 10 in Harnett and six in Wake.
Cooper used Tuesdays press conference to urge state legislators to provide money to double to 10 the number of SBI agents who investigate the manufacture and distribution of meth and help uncover to meth labs. The agency had seven agents until it lost two to budget cuts in 2007, he said. The SBI started training members of local law enforcement to handle the work load.