RALEIGH — North Carolina investigators busted a record number of methamphetamine labs in 2013, up by 22 percent from the year before, according to the state Department of Justice.
Of the 561 labs busted last year by the State Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement agents, 81 percent were small labs that used the “shake and bake” method, according to the state. This method allows meth cookers to fill a plastic bottle with the ingredients that include solvent, bits of lithium strip from a battery, lye and pseudoephedrine.
The largest number of meth lab busts were in rural counties, led by Wilkes with 50 and followed by Onslow with 46 and Anson with 30. Wake County, the state’s second most populous, had only 10.
State officials say an electronic tracking program called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, has proven helpful in tracking down small meth operations, which are easy to conceal and transport.
In January 2012, state law began requiring pharmacies to enter information into the exchange during sales of products containing pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in many over-the-counter drugs such as Sudafed.
The state legislature required that the drug be kept behind pharmacy counters in 2006 to combat meth production. Meth bust numbers dropped for two years, but have risen steadily since 2008, as small labs became more common.
More than 400 investigators and law enforcement agents in the state now use the NPLEx to help track down potential meth cooks by seeing who has attempted to purchase more than the legal amount of products containing pseudoephedrine.
Individuals may buy only two packages of products containing the ingredient at once. Over a 30-day period, they may buy only three. Since Dec. 1, it is a felony for a person convicted of meth production or use to possess any products containing pseudoephedrine.
Van Shaw, deputy assistant director of the State Bureau of Investigation, said the new system is “so much more efficient” than the old way of tracking down a possible meth cook.
“Prior to the initiation of the NPLEx system, we would literally have to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to see if their name was in the log book,” he said.
Last year, NPLEx blocked 44,299 illegal sales at pharmacies in North Carolina. The 324 pounds that would have been purchased could have produced about 280 pounds of meth, state officials say. In 2012, the system blocked 54,000 illegal sales.
North Carolina is now one of 24 states that use the system.
Shaw said law-abiding citizens should not worry if they hit the legal limit for their over-the counter decongestants. He said law enforcement agents use the system to track down individuals they already suspect cook or help cook meth.
“It doesn’t really rise to establishing an offense, but it does help put the pieces together,” he said.