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Meth Labs Down In TN, More Dealers Turning To Mexico

Law enforcement agencies across Tennessee are trumpeting a drop in meth lab busts, but their excitement is tempered by a cheaper, stronger version of the drug coming into the state from the same Mexican drug cartels that bring heroin and cocaine.

Methamphetamine lab busts and seizures are down 41 percent across the state, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Other meth-heavy states such as Missouri and Oklahoma have seen similar trends this year.

Stronger enforcement and new legislation regulating the sale of key ingredient pseudoephedrine are getting credit for the drop, but expert Mike Stanfill said it is also tied to large amounts of the drug that have started coming in from Mexico over the past year.

Stanfill, who is assistant special agent in charge at the Nashville office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said dealers who once had to collect enough pseudoephedrine to cook meth themselves now find it easier to buy the drug from outside sources.

Mexican cartels are making larger batches of meth using an alternative to pseudoephedrine that is illegal in the United States, according to the DEA.

Meth coming from cartels also has become both more dangerous and affordable.

The purity of Mexican meth increased from 39 percent in 2007 to essentially 100 percent today, said Jim Shroba, special agent in charge for the DEA’s St. Louis office. The price over that same period has fallen sharply, from $290 per pure gram to around $100 per pure gram.

Despite the new challenges in the war on meth, the drop in meth labs does make Tennessee safer, according to Special Agent in Charge Tommy Farmer with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.

"One can in no way downplay the ills of meth use and the broken lives and broken families that result from it," Farmer said. "But when it is is manufactured in clandestine labs in Mexico, not clandestine labs in Tennessee, we don’t have the collateral damage. We are not dealing with the raw materials or byproducts or waste that is generated with manufacturing. We are not having to deal with children who are exposed or the environmental impact."

Meth in Tennessee

Meth has been a scourge in Tennessee for years. Between 2008 and 2012, Tennessee and Missouri reported the two highest numbers of meth lab incidents in the nation, according to the State Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability.

Law enforcement officers waging a statewide war on methamphetamine reported finding 1,995 meth labs in 2013, a jump of more than 11 percent since 2012, according to a TBI report on statewide crime in 2013.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law this summer that set monthly and annual limits on cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine. More than a dozen Tennessee cities, including Winchester, have established more severe regulations, passing ordinances that require prescriptions for medicines with pseudoephedrine.

On Friday, Farmer estimated only 906 labs have been seized across the state in 2014.

Winchester Police Chief Dennis Young said meth labs in his area have fallen dramatically. But the change in the supply system has also led some users to other drugs.

"A lot of the meth addicts are switching over to prescription drugs," Young said. "We are seeing statewide an uptick in prescription drug abuse."

Traffickers bring meth, other drugs

Farmer said the Mexican cartels are using existing supply chains to distribute their new meth, using the same carriers that ship heroin or cocaine. Some traffickers hide the meth in barrels of oil or fuel tanks. Others package it in Gatorade bottles.

Most of Tennessee’s Mexican meth is being traced to Atlanta, although Stanfill said cartels are beginning to set up shop here as well. The cartels are producing more of the drug than Tennessee’s meth cooks.

In the past, meth dealers arrested by officers only had pocket change and a small amount of the drug. Now, Stanfill said, some officers are coming across dealers with tens of thousands of dollars and more than a pound of meth.

"It’s a cat-and-mouse game," Farmer said. "When you build a better mousetrap, you make smarter mouse. But our methods continue to evolve as well."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Jordan Buie at 615-726-5970 and on Twitter @JordanBuie.

Labs found in Tennessee

• 2014 — 906 as of Nov. 14

• 2013 — 1,995

• 2012 — 1,789

• 2011 — 1,739

Source: Tenn. Bureau of Investigation