The next time you're dabbing a runny nose while waiting in line to show your driver's license to a pharmacist so you can snag a box of pills designed to fight your cold, know this:
Since state officials pulled cold medicine off the shelf and put it behind the counter 13 months ago, police and firefighters have found 40 percent fewer labs where cold pills and combustible chemicals were being cooked into a toxic concoction called methamphetamine.
In hard numbers, that's a drop from 328 labs found in North Carolina in 2005 to 197 last year. In selfish terms, it means the chance of your house exploding because a neighbor screwed up his meth recipe dropped dramatically.
Feeling better? Well, hold the orange juice cocktail.
Just because state officials have helped curb the local mom and pop manufacturing of meth does not mean the addicts have disappeared. While some national drug surveys detected a small drop in meth use, those who keep tabs on the meth culture locally say abuse is as common as ever.
As long as they are around, the users are draining drug rehabilitation programs and their children are still being given to strangers to raise.
"They didn't go away, and they'll get one way or another," said Craig Fish, captain of the Johnston County Sheriff's Office narcotics division, which has broken up more than a dozen labs in the last two years. "The drug is all they think about. The craving is constant."
Skeptics say drug agents and health experts have exaggerated the problem and that meth use is on the decline. In fact, a national drug survey suggests as much. But tracking trends in meth use is difficult at best; the national survey that found a decrease in meth use relied on interviewers knocking on random doors and asking people about their drug habit. Meth addicts often live in remote places and are wary of strangers.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said he met such skepticism several years ago when he waged an full-on attack on meth through a serious of tough laws. Some lawmakers thought he had gone over the top.
"When we began pushing for this, there were many skeptics. Many counties had never seen a meth lab, and I wanted to keep it that way," Cooper said. He had traveled out West and met with law enforcement in states ravaged by meth labs. North Carolina wasn't seeing nearly the volume, and Cooper said he wanted to be proactive.
But the problem is just taking another form now, Cooper concedes. Meth users are getting their fix from traffickers who are bringing large shipments into the state, narcotics agents say. These are the same cartels that have been delivering powder cocaine and marijuana for years.
"They're just diversifying their product line," said Van Shaw, head of clandestine lab operations for the State Bureau of Investigation. "They already have the network."
One risk of trafficking is that users set up labs where they turn the trafficked powder into crystal meth, a more potent form of the drug. Since the cold medicine regulations went into effect, these new labs, Shaw said, have been detected in North Carolina. Because they require gallons of flammable acetone, these conversion labs are just as dangerous as the home cookers they have replaced.
Getting around the law
And, of course, some are still hooked on cooking their own; those addicts are just getting more clever about securing boxes of cold medicine.
Some are diverting large batches from delivery trucks or from the warehouses of major drug manufacturers. Others pay a runner to hit up all the pharmacies in a particular town. It takes time to gather enough pills to make a batch -- one user estimated 100 boxes for just three ounces of meth. Until a federal law regulating cold medicine went into effect in September, users could simply drive to a border state where there was no such limitation on cold medicines.
Federal lawmakers, following the lead of states such as Oklahoma and Tennessee, also adopted laws that put cold medicines behind counters in September. The federal law, however, is more lenient than North Carolina's, which bans groceries and big-box retailers from carrying the pills.
Shaw said his agents routinely scan lists of cold medicine customers kept by pharmacists. Agents look for repeat customers and cross-check lists from pharmacies in the same city. Shaw estimates that a quarter of North Carolina's nearly 200 lab busts last year resulted from information mined from pharmacists' logs.
Of course, there's fear that just about the time law enforcement declares victory over homemade meth cooks, another drug or a new variation will hit the scene.
Self-described meth addict Louis Porcelli says he has already heard of one that lets cooks bypass cold pills. He refused to share the recipe.