Meth lab seizures were on the rise across the state in 2011, with the final tally placing Missouri, with 2,096 labs seized, at number one in the nation for meth production.
Missouri was followed by Tennessee with 1,687 labs seized; Indiana with 1,437 and Kentucky with 1,188.
"The number of meth labs recovered in Missouri in 2011 compromises one-fifth of the nation's meth production." said Mike Lyle, a detective with the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department. "On the eastern seaboard and in other areas around the nation, meth is called 417 because a majority of Missouri's meth production occurs in the 417 area code."
Lyle and other deputies in the department seized 35 labs in Lawrence County in 2011.
The Greene County task force seized 115 labs for the same time period followed by Jasper County with 86, McDonald County with 43, Barry County with 42, Christian and Newton counties with 36 each and Stone County with 17.
"Most of these other areas have a dedicated task force," Lyle said. "Lawrence County has just one man working dope -- me."
Lyle attributes the rise in meth labs to a different way cooks are making their product these days -- called the "one pot" or "shake 'n bake" method.
"Basically, they're cooking in a bottle," Lyle said. "They pour all of the ingredients into a plastic bottle and shake it to get a reaction going."
The method is a dangerous one for meth cooks and the public alike.
"It's a small bomb," Lyle said. "I've seen guys where it's blown up in their hand.
"On the public safety side, these cooks throw their trash out wherever they happen to be," Lyle said. "If someone comes along and picks up a bottle with this toxic residue in it, they can be severely injured."
Although the Missouri legislature has passed laws to restrict how often a person can purchase pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used to make meth, cooks find a way to get around it.
"They go in and buy the maximum number of boxes they are allowed," Lyle said. "Then their friends go in. Sometimes a cook will pay someone with a clean record $25 to go buy a box of pills.
"What that person doesn't know, or won't admit, is that they are contributing to the problem," Lyle said. "They can be charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine."
The department, and other task force agencies in southwest Missouri, monitor the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEX) for suspects who routinely purchase pseudoephedrine pills.
"We have a watch list," Lyle said "One deputy has 120 people he is watching right now. We are automatically sent text alerts when those people purchase pseudoephedrine."
The difference in today's meth production methods compared to those of 10 years ago is vast.
"Back in 1990 and 1992, we had super labs, where cooks processed thousands of pills at a time," Lyle said. "They used anhydrous ammonia, or red phosphorous and iodine, to cook their product on a stove top. Now we find the mom-and-pop labs where just one or two people are working it, and those are typically shake 'n bakes."
The number of lab seizures in Lawrence County has increased every year since 2007 when only 10 labs were reported to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. In 2008, 21 labs were reported in Lawrence County, followed by 33 in 2009. The number reported to the Patrol dropped in 2010 to 23, a factor Lyle attributed to having no dedicated officer working drugs in the county. In 2011, a total of 35 labs were reported to the Patrol.
Lyle said the shake 'n bake labs are run by those who cook for personal use and sell some on the side to buy more precursors.
In Barry County, the Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force's four-man team stays busy chasing cooks and other illegal drug sellers and users.
The number of meth labs seized by the task force, that includes Barry, McDonald and parts of Lawrence counties, has increased from 35 in 2008 to 100 in 2011.
"The shake and bake labs are much faster, and they're mobile," said task force agent John Luckey. "Someone can be driving down the road and cooking."
He said McDonald County is seeing a resurgence in the older red and black labs, using iodine and red phosphorous.
"We are seeing older guys come out of the pen and start cooking again," Luckey said. "They are using methods they are most comfortable with. We are even seeing parents teach their kids how to cook -- for the money and the high."
The high is what hooks first-time users.
"It's 100 times better than anything you could ever dream," Luckey said.
The drug affects those from all walks of life.
"I've seen people that fit the typical mental image, all crazy eyed and out there," Luckey said. "Then there are the ones you would never suspect.
"Of the thousands of interviews I've conducted, I've had people tell me that they could take it or leave it," he continued. "Others say after that first hit, they knew the devil had them forever."
The high is not a physical effect from the drug; it's mental.
"It's psychologically addicting," Luckey said. "The effects from using meth are people losing interest in everything else in their lives. Sports, family, community. They continually chase the high. They lose jobs, stability and income."
There is no particular age or gender connected with the drug.
"There are people using meth ranging from 16 to 70 years of age, both male and female," Luckey said. "Even if they are miserable and eat up, they still have a craving for the drug. They can't see what a mess their lives have become."
Other drug threats
Drug enforcement agents are finding a rise in other kinds of synthetic drug use in the bi-county area.
"Convenience stores sell synthetic marijuana [K2] as incense and potpourri," Luckey said. "There are also synthetics being marketed as bath salts. They can do a lot of damage to a person."
Abuse of prescription drugs among teens and young adults is also a growing trend in the bi-county area.
"Narcotic use is as bad as a meth addiction," Lyle said. "It's the next epidemic, and it's already here."
Narcotic drug abuse is also affecting those in all walks of life.
"You have someone who is on a strong pain medication and hurting financially," Lyle said. "They think I can take half a pain pill and get by and sell these 10 pills to someone for $40 each. That's $400. That's rent.
"They're not what you would consider to be bad people," he continued, "but they are putting pills out there for others to sell to kids. And we're taking grandmas and grandpas to jail for drug trafficking."
Both Lyle and Luckey don't see the meth problem going away any time soon.
"The demand is there," Luckey said. "Drug traffickers will bring it in from Mexico, Canada or wherever.
"It's dangerous," Luckey continued. "It's life changing. The best advice is don't get started. Don't hang around with people taking it. You never know if you're in that large percentage of people that can't give it up."