Meth is a well-documented plague in Warren County. In fact, the problem is so prevalent, sheriff’s department officials say our Walgreens store ranks among the tops in America in pseudoephedrine sales.
Psuedoephedrine is an ingredient in cold medication needed to make meth.
“Our Walgreens here was No. 2 in the nation in pseudoephedrine sales last year,” said sheriff’s investigator Marc Martin. “Since then they’ve gotten so sick of it, they no longer sell Sudafed.
“We kind of had a partnership with Walgreens and we would sit in the parking lot and we would watch them go and buy the stuff,” Martin continued. “The pharmacy would call me on the phone and tell me who they were and what they purchased, then I’d follow them to Walmart and their pharmacy would call me and tell me what they purchased. Then we’d follow them to TSC where they’d go in and buy acid. Then we’d stop them and arrest them for making the purchases of meth ingredients. We made multiple cases that way. There were so many of them there’d be times we’d have TBI and the meth task force help us. We’d have six or seven officers at one pharmacy.
“But we’d leave to go and get three or four people and the pharmacist would be calling while we were on the traffic stop and have 10 more people,” Martin said.
Martin said local drugstores have been really cooperative in helping drug enforcement by calling them when someone with their name on the target list purchases pseudoephedrine, but some businesses have been so overwhelmed they simply quit offering the product.
The problem has Warren County Sheriff Jackie Matheny and government officials calling for a ban on pseudoephedrine.
The cost of cleaning up meth labs has also become a major issue for Warren County, as well as the rest of the nation, after the federal government announced earlier this year funds designated for the cleanup and disposal of hazardous meth waste had run out.
Tennessee lost an estimated $5 million in the cuts, leaving state and local law enforcement agencies scrambling to find alternative funding sources, one being the Environmental Protection Agency.
Martin explained one of the biggest expenses of meth disposal is transportation, which at one point cost up to $370 per hour for the drivers who hauled the hazardous waste, something Commissioner Ron Lee felt was outrageous.
“When they cut the money out, the price went down to $70 an hour,” Lee said. “We taxpayers were being gouged, terribly, at those prices.”
Coffee County has started a new container method where surrounding counties can bring their meth trash and have it hauled away in bulk. This means meth-making materials can be gathered in one easy trip, instead of separate trips to Manchester, McMinnville, Tullahoma, etc.
“Even if we had to use the EPA, the cost would go way down because the meth task force truck drivers, instead of calling hazmat, come straight to the scene and package everything up and take it to Coffee County to their container site where they’re going to repackage it with other counties’ meth labs seizures. Say you have some red phosphorus, everybody’s red phosphorus goes into a bucket until it’s full. That way, when hazmat is called they come to the container site. That’s where most of the cost is anyway, in their travel time to and from the site. So instead of $3,000 it might cost us $500.”
Matheny said the new meth legislation, which will change the reporting of meth ingredient purchases, may help apprehend meth-makers, but it isn’t a cure-all.
“It’s not going to make a huge difference,” Matheny said. “It might for a little while. When they came out with legislation to control pseudoephedrine and put it behind the counter, yeah, it slowed down, it could have been by half. But as soon as they figured out a way around that, it came right back, maybe more than ever, this last year.”
Martin explained how the new law works.
“Say a local pharmacy has a paper-written log of who buys the Sudafed,” Martin said. “What they’re doing with that new law is making them do it electronically. Walgreens enters electronically now. All the law’s going to do is speed up the process a little bit. Now if you do a paper log, the meth task force truck driver will come by every other day and pick up that log and he will manually put it in the computer system. So all it’s going to do is speed up the sharing of information a little bit.”
Matheny says it might be time to go a little farther.
“We’re for that law,” Matheny said. “We don’t mean to be derogatory of it, but is it going to cure our problem? No. If they take away pseudoephedrine they can’t make meth.”
Matheny recalled a recent visit by Congressman Scott DesJarlais to address the meth issue.
“DesJarlais told us that day there’s no medical reason to even have it,” Matheny said. “But you know, there are a lot of powerful lobbies, so I don’t see us getting rid of it. But the container program is going to make a huge difference.”
Matheny said the county used from $300,000 to $500,000 in federal funds to clean up meth labs last year.
Despite the fact consumers are no longer allowed to buy large quantities of pseudoephedrine, Matheny says that hasn’t stopped meth-makers who simply began recruiting buyers, sometimes called “smurfs” to travel around the region and buy the ingredients. Matheny says they are pretty blatant about it, even locally.
“They are restricted to two packages,” Matheny said. “They don’t care. Marc and them can be sitting at the place watching and they’ll go right by, go in there and get it knowing they are police.”
Matheny said meth is a scourge and sometimes it seems like a losing battle for law enforcement.
“They’re not afraid,” Matheny said. “They’ll just keep on getting it, and here we go again.”