December 22, 2011 / 5:30 PM / 8 years ago

Addictive meth is scourge of rural Missouri

KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - Becky Cozort knows all about the allure of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that appears especially rampant in Missouri.

“You can’t do it one time and say no,” Cozort said. “You feel you have to keep it going.”

Meth has hooked a lot of people in Missouri, which is on its way to leading the nation again this year in the number of meth lab busts. Much of the meth activity occurs in the hilly, mostly rural region south of St. Louis, where Cozort lives.

Meth can be cooked at home, using cheap, easily accessible ingredients. Finding a meth supplier isn’t hard, Cozort said.

“You go into a bar and you can find someone who can get you meth,” Cozort said. Cozort, 32, said she has been on and off meth since age 16, quit again four months ago and is in treatment.

Missouri is expected to total more than 2,100 seizures of meth labs or dump sites in 2011, according to the state patrol. They include busts in five mobile homes owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in tornado-ravaged Joplin. The trailers were occupied by tornado survivors.

Missouri is far ahead of other states in meth busts again this year and has ranked at the top nationally for seven years, according to data reported to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Last year, there were 11,239 meth busts reported to the DEA, with 1,917 in Missouri alone. Four states near Missouri — Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee — also have usually ranked high nationally in meth busts, the DEA data show.

Cozort lives in Jefferson County, which has twice as many meth lab and dump site seizures as any other county in the state and far more than most, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol data. Bordering counties also rank high.

The area may be attractive for meth-making because it has rural hideaways still not far from metropolitan St. Louis, said Lieutenant John Hotz, a patrol spokesman.

But the county is also a place of strong enforcement efforts, led by seven officers assigned to meth cases, said Corporal Timothy Whitney of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.

“We take an extremely aggressive approach in addressing meth in this area,” Whitney said. “The high (meth bust) numbers are actually because we do put the work into it.”

Likewise, Hotz said the high meth numbers statewide are partly due to enforcement at the local levels. In addition, Missouri requires all local agencies to report meth busts to the state. That is not the case in all states, which may make their numbers appear lower, he said.

The key ingredient in meth is pseudoephedrine, which is found in some over-the-counter cold medicines. A federal law that took effect in 2005 requires pseudoephedrine to be sold behind the counter, in limited quantities and only to persons with a picture ID.

That law probably contributed to the annual declines in meth lab busts for several years, said DEA spokesperson Barbara Carreno.

But the numbers have rebounded in the past two years due in part to a tactic called “smurfing” in which people buy pseudoephedrine products for $8 or $9 a box and sell them to meth makers for 10 times as much, Whitney said. Sometimes, these are people trying to raise money to buy their own drug of choice, such as heroin, he said.

Jefferson County has tried to control the sale of pseudoephedrine by making it available only by prescription, which has pushed purchasers into other counties, Whitney said.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has called for a state law requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, which has met opposition from drug companies. Only two states, Oregon and Mississippi, have such a law, he said.

Meth is cooked using common supplies, such as rubbing alcohol, battery acid and drain cleaner. Meth can be smoked, inhaled, snorted or injected.

Meth poses not only a health risk to users but to people living around places where it is made. Cooking it can cause explosions and the residues of meth products are health hazards requiring careful cleanup, officials said.

Federal funding to help pay for meth lab cleanups was cut off this year, likely causing the drop-off in meth enforcement in some states, officials said. But Congress approved new funding for 2012.

Cozort said when she first tried meth in high school it cured her attention deficit disorder and helped her read and remember material, get good grades and graduate.

Later, when she changed from snorting meth to injecting it, the drug gave her the type of euphoric feelings craved by many meth users. But that feeling eventually faded.

“Later, it confused me and made me more lost,” she said. Cozort said a law requiring pseudoephedrine products to be prescription-only would put the brakes on a lot of users.

“If they are not going to pass that law it’s hopeless, I really think it is,” Cozort said. “It’s too easy to get.”

Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton

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