Meth making is on the rise in Johnston County and across North Carolina.
State and local law-enforcement agencies – and this year’s Johnston County Health Report – note a spike in meth arrests in recent years. In 2013, according to the County Health Report, Johnston shut down 22 meth labs, up from 15 the year before. With 22 busts, Johnston ranked eighth highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Meth making is on the rise because it’s now easier to produce using the fast “one pot” cooking method.
The good news is that arrests are on the rise too thanks to heightened awareness among law enforcement, said Special Agent Kelly Page of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
“I think part of it speaks to the addiction, and I think part of it speaks to law enforcement’s efforts,” said Page, who has focused exclusively on meth since 2005. “And along with law-enforcement efforts comes public awareness.”
Addiction and the ease of making meth are a bad combination, Page said. “When you combine the fact that people are addicted to meth (with) the ease of this one-pot method, that’s probably why the numbers are higher.”
The “one pot,” or “shake and bake,” recipe is simple: Put all of the ingredients in a plastic soda bottle and shake them together. The meth is usually done cooking in half an hour.
It’s simple but also dangerous, Page said. “That inside of the bottle – the combination of those chemicals – creates gasses and vapors that are flammable and that are dangerous to breathe in,” she said. “They can actually burn your lungs if you breathe them in.
“The pressure can build up to the point where the bottle explodes,” Page added. “It’s a fire and explosion hazard. Also it’s an inhalation hazard. Anyone who’s around it can breathe in these chemicals.”
Meth is also easily made because most of its ingredients, including fertilizer, drain opener and lighter fluid, can all be obtained legally. Its main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, is also legal, but the law restricts how much of it anyone can in a 24-hour period.
Capt. A.C. Fish, head of the narcotics division at the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, said his team has been working with pharmacies, which alerts the Sheriff’s Office to suspicious purchases.
“If it looks like something that doesn’t look right, a lot of times our resources will give us a call,” Fish said. “With that type of community policing, we’re getting a lot of tips that other agencies aren’t getting simply because we’re utilizing these resources.”
But preventing the spread of meth isn’t just a job for the Sheriff’s Office and SBI. In July, Page went to Johnston Community College, where she taught firefighters, paramedics, social workers and health department employees how to spot production and use.
In September, Johnston Sheriff Steve Bizzell said his office had broken up 30 meth labs so far this year. One arrest often leads to others, he said.
“When we bring [suspects] in, either during the investigation or after they’re arrested, they realize they’re in trouble,” he said. “They start telling on who’s smurfing, who’s making. We follow up on all of those leads.”
Whenever the Sheriff’s Office breaks up a meth lab in a dwelling, it calls on the county’s Division of Environmental Health for cleanup. Depending on the level of contamination – and damage from the burning of evidence – the dwelling might need new furniture and carpet, said Larry Sullivan, the county’s director of environmental health. And sometimes, especially in the cases of older mobile homes, the cost of cleanup can exceed the value of the home, he said.
“Things like children’s toys, like teddy bears, there’s no way you can clean those things,” Sullivan added. “We recommend to the responsible party that they dispose of them.”
These days, it’s almost impossible to find a North Carolina county that is free of meth production, Page said. Since 2010, the number of meth lab busts statewide has increased from 235 to 561 last year.
“I think the Johnston County Sheriff's Office is doing a great job of following up on complaints,” Page said. “Every single day, (the Sheriff’s Office) gets complaints about meth labs. The more people that we train in what a meth lab looks like, the more reports we’ll get of them.”