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Meth trade grows: Record number of labs anticipated in 2013

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By Damon Lawrence

Putting medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Limiting how much you can buy. Electronic tracking. Requiring people to speak to a pharmacist and show ID before purchasing.

Those are some of the measures the state has put in place to fight meth production.

They haven’t worked, according to Tommy Farmer, director of the state’s meth task force.

“Business is booming,” he said. “Literally and figuratively.”

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there was 611 meth labs reported across the state through the first three months of the year. There was 488 reported over that same time period in 2012.

“If we stay at this course, which is based on the first three months of this year, we’re looking at around 2,400 meth labs before year’s end,” Farmer said.

“That will exceed our previous record year in 2010 of 2,082. We’ll pass it and not look back.”

Pseudoephedrine, which is found in many cold and allergy medicines, is the main ingredient used to make meth. Farmer said the solution to the state’s meth problem, in his opinion, is to require people to have a prescription in order to purchase medicines that contain pseudoephedrine. He’s not alone.

“The only way to get at it is to make it a prescription requirement,” District Attorney General Russell Johnson said. “That’s the only thing that has shown any marked success in the states that have done it compared to states like ours.”

The Tennessee General Assembly was presented with that proposal a few years ago. Legislators instead settled on the National Precursor Log Exchange.

The exchange, also known as NPLEx, was dubbed as a real-time, electronic tracking system of pseudoephedrine purchases. A report released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury concluded the exchange has been ineffective in combating the meth problem.

“People have found ways to not only circumvent the system, but to a point that has exceeded previous years,” Farmer said.

Farmer said he’s been trying for years to persuade the General Assembly to pass the prescription-only legislation.

“I got to be careful with my comments,” he said. “Let’s just say there’s some stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, and they have more resources than I do in terms of promotion.”

State Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, sponsored a bill this year that would have made medicines containing pseudoephedrine a controlled substance, but it was deferred by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

“How do we get at the root of stopping meth production?” Hawk asked. “You go to the No. 1 precursor, which is the pseudoephedrine-based drug in that little-bitty pill.”

Hawk said his bill applied only to pills and not pseudoephedrine medicines in liquid gel form.

“We’re talking about one form of that drug with this piece of legislation,” he said. “We’re talking about the little pills.”

Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said legislators have to take into account a bill’s impact on law-abiding citizens.

“I think some people in law enforcement sometimes don’t understand that we have the responsibility to balance the law, and sometimes it don’t come out as stout as they might wish it to be,” Shipley said. “On the other hand we have citizens, 6.5 million of them, that we have a responsibility to protect their freedoms and their rights.”