LITTLE ROCK — The number of meth labs being seized in Arkansas has dropped significantly since a law meant to restrict the sale of cold medications commonly used to make the illicit drug went into effect in 2005, statistics show.
But officials are concerned about the increasing popularity of a new method of cooking methamphetamine they say is just as dangerous as the old way but dramatically cuts down on the time, space and amount of pseudoephedrine used in the process.
State Crime Lab statistics show the number of meth labs seized in the state dropped by nearly half, from 1,206 to 638, in the year after Act 256 of 2005 became law, limiting the amount of legal medications containing pseudoephedrine that can be sold and requiring the purchaser to show photo identification.
But one consequence of the law has been a change in the way methamphetamine is “cooked,” said William Bryant, special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Little Rock District Office.
An effort that once took days and a room full of equipment has given way to the “one pot” cooking method in which highly noxious chemicals, along with pseudoephedrine, are mixed in a two-liter soft drink bottle.
“Now the crooks are cooking in another way, but making less,” Bryant said.
Using only a handful of cold pills to make one or two grams of methamphetamine at a time, enable meth manufacturers to avoid having to use many boxes of pills in a larger lab and sidestep the purchasing restrictions in Act 256, he said.
Chemist Chris Harrison at the state Crime Lab said about 75 percent of the 422 meth labs seized in 2011 were “one pot” labs.
“We still see a few larger labs, so they are not completely gone, but the number of big labs has definitely decreased,” Harrison said.
State Drug Director Fran Fleener said most areas of the state are reporting fewer drug labs, but some regions are noticing a rise in the “one pot” labs.
“Now most of the clandestine labs that we have are the ‘one pot’ method and often times those are discarded along the side of the road,” Fleener said, adding that they are extremely dangers and explosions can occur while shaking the concoction.
While meth labs remain a problem in the state, officials say a bigger problem is the trafficking of meth “ice” from Mexico. Agents are seizing as much as 20 pounds of the illegal drug at a time, Bryant said.
“That is what the DEA spends the majority of its time on,” he said, adding “ice” is smoked, while meth manufactured in labs is generally injected or snorted.
Along with the drop in the number meth labs in recent years, there also has been a decline in the number of people needing medical treatment for burns at the burn unit of Arkansas’ Children’s Hospital, said Dr. Anjay Kandelwal, director of the unit which treats both children and adults.
“We have seen a significant number decrease with the meth-related injuries,” Kandelwal said, adding that unit has not treated a child with meth-related burns for nearly two years.
“Most of the burns that we see related to meth injuries are usually in adults, naturally, because they are cooking the meth and making it,” he said, adding that 19 patients were treated at the hospital for meth-related burns in 2005 and seven the following year.
“I think those numbers have remained pretty consistent,” he said, noting that now meth burns account for less than 5 percent of the patients the unit treats annually. “I think that trend has been repeated nationwide.
All the burn centers nationwide have essentially seen a decrease in the amount of meth burns that they are seeing.”
Sen. Percy Malone, D-Arkadelphia, sponsor of each of the laws dealing with the sale of pseudoephedrine products, said he began pushing the legislation after seeing reports of the increasing number of children burned when meth labs exploded in their homes.
“I’m very pleased that the number of children being treated for burns is just extremely minimal,” he said. “We may not be able to do away with the meth problem, but at least we can keep children from being burned.”
Act 256 of 2005 limits purchases of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine to no more than three packages containing 96 pills and requires the over-the-counter medications to be sold in the pharmacy.
The Legislature in 2011 passed a law that only pharmacists can sell cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.
In 2009, the Legislature enacted legislation creating the “Leads on Labs” program in Arkansas. Under the program, law enforcement and pharmacies have access to a data base that tracks purchases of cold medications with pseudoephedrine.
The data base contains the purchasers’ address and amount of medications they bought containing pseudoephedrine.