For more than a dozen years, the wooded hills and valleys of Jefferson County have hidden a dark side of life here: a drug problem so pervasive that some people call this rural area "Metherson County."
Methamphetamine has a tight grip on this county south of St. Louis, says Cpl. Timothy Whitney of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, who manages a county drug task force. Jefferson County leads the state in meth lab seizures -- a sign, he says, of aggressive enforcement as well as the scope of its problem.
Through Nov. 28, there were 6,915 seizures of meth labs, equipment and dumpsites nationwide; Missouri led all states with 1,744. So far this year, there have been 234 seizures in Jefferson County.
"We have no bigger problem than most of the counties in Missouri," Whitney says, but its team approach leads to more busts. Through the end of November, there were 75 drug-related misdemeanor and 340 felony arrests, many prompted by anonymous tips.
Meth continues to plague communities across the nation despite getting scant attention, says UCLA psychiatry professor Richard Rawson. "You'd think there's no meth problem, he says, but in many economically depressed rural areas it's still used "to cope with difficulty and poverty."
Steven Shoptaw, a family medicine professor at UCLA, says the nation "is not yet past the chapter on methamphetamine." As the problem persists, he says, budget woes are shrinking resources to address the problem. "There's just an air of desperation that's out there," he says.
Whitney's task force has nine investigators, down from 12 in 2005, and it will lose two more Jan. 1 when a federal grant that subsidizes task force salaries expires. "The problem is going up, but the manpower is going down," Whitney says.
Jefferson County was the first in Missouri to end over-the-counter sales of cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient, but neighboring St. Louis County has no restrictions. Under state law, people can buy up to 9 grams of pseudoephedrine every 30 days.
Until there's a statewide requirement that those medicines can be sold only with a prescription, Whitney says, the battle against meth labs won't be won.
Oregon and Mississippi have reported dramatic decreases in meth lab seizures since laws requiring prescriptions for all pseudoephedrine sales were enacted. The Missouri House passed a similar bill this year; it died in the state Senate.
Labs hard to find
Meth use is down nationwide, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released in September by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The number of people who said they had used meth in the past month fell from 731,000 in 2006 to 353,000 in 2010.
Meth arrived in Jefferson County around 1998, Whitney says. Once people got hooked, they started making, or cooking, it. It's harder to find meth labs here because there are no big-scale manufacturers, just hundreds of individual "mom and pop" cooks, he says.
There is, however, a broad network of people who buy medications containing pseudoephedrine and sell it to the cooks, a practice called smurfing, Whitney says. In the past three years or so, young heroin users have begun smurfing to make money so they can buy heroin.
A box of Sudafed that costs $8 or $9, he says, can be sold to meth cooks for $100, which is enough for 10 small heroin doses. Whitney expects almost 30 heroin overdose deaths this year in this county of 219,000.
Law enforcement officials began tracking another trend in 2007 that made busting meth cooks even more difficult: a "one pot" method. The drug is mixed in a 2-liter soda bottle, often in moving cars. When the process is complete, the leftover toxic materials are tossed out the car window.
Corrosive social impact