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Cuts in key funds hurt war on meth

Police can’t afford to clean up labs

By Jim Salter
Associated Press / August 11, 2011

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ST. LOUIS - Police and sheriff’s departments in states that produce much of the nation’s methamphetamine have made a sudden retreat in the war on meth, at times virtually abandoning pursuit of the drug because they can no longer afford to clean up the toxic waste generated by labs.

Despite abundant evidence that the meth trade is flourishing, many law enforcement agencies have called off tactics that have been used for years to confront drug makers: sending agents undercover, conducting door-to-door investigations, and setting up stakeouts at pharmacies to catch people buying large amounts of cold medicine.

The steep cuts began in February after the federal government canceled a program that provided millions of dollars to help local agencies dispose of seized labs. Since then, an Associated Press analysis shows, the number of labs seized has plummeted by a third in some key meth-producing states and two-thirds in at least one, Alabama.

The trend is almost certain to continue unless more states find a way to replace the federal money or to conduct cheaper cleanups.

“They’re not actively out there looking for it,’’ said Tony Saucedo, meth enforcement director for Michigan State Police. “And the big issue is money. We have taken 10 steps backward.’’

Authorities say they have no doubt that meth trafficking remains brisk. Record busts are being reported in some states that fund their own cleanups.

But in places that rely on federal money, law enforcement agencies feel paralyzed. At least one sheriff became so frustrated that he considered burning meth waste illegally in a landfill rather than leaving it in neighborhoods where curious children could find it.

Lab seizures were down 32 percent through May 31 in Tennessee, which led the nation in seizures in 2010. The numbers were similar or worse in other leading meth states: down 33 percent in Arkansas, 35 percent in Michigan, and 62 percent in Alabama.

All of those states relied heavily on funding from the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program. It offered local agencies $19.2 million in 2010. That money was not renewed and is unlikely to come back.

“Do you really think our labs fell that much?’’ asked Tommy Farmer, state meth task force coordinator for Tennessee. “Hell no.’’

Other figures confirm that meth is thriving. The most recent national survey from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that after declining for several years, the number of first-time meth users rose in 2009 to 154,000, up from 95,000 the previous year.

Because meth is made using a volatile mix of ingredients such as battery acid, drain cleaner, and ammonia, only crews with specialized training are allowed to handle the materials found in labs. The waste can only be dumped in specially approved waste sites.

Under Community Oriented Policing Services, the agency that seizes a lab notifies the Drug Enforcement Administration, which hires a contractor to remove the meth debris and take it to a disposal site. Those cleanups typically cost at least $2,500, even for a small lab.

Oklahoma was also among the national leaders in meth lab busts in 2010, when it used federal funds for cleanup. After that money dried up, the state agreed to pick up the tab. As a result, lab seizures in Oklahoma have continued to climb - up 25 percent this year.

The decision was costly: Oklahoma had to scuttle plans to hire a combined 20 drug investigators and educators to pay for cleanup.

“We stepped up and decided we had to do this,’’ said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

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