LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — The tell-tale empty box of decongestant pills lay crumpled and damp in the woods behind an abandoned trailer, and the people who used it to make methamphetamine were long gone.
Their trash pile was evidence of a quick method of cooking methamphetamine that is gaining popularity in South Carolina – causing the number of meth cases to skyrocket and allowing “cooks” to be more mobile.
Last year, six years after South Carolina made people show an ID to buy pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, the State Law Enforcement Division reported 538 meth-related incidents in the state. That’s four times the number reported in 2010.
Now, some law enforcement experts think the only way to stop meth is to make its key ingredient a prescription drug.
The box and its opened blister packs were discovered Monday in rural Lexington County. They were in a trash bag along with an empty can of Coleman camp fuel, mangled lithium batteries, some rubber tubing and a few pieces of broken plastic. An undercover agent who works with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department’s Multi-Agency Narcotics Enforcement Team sifted through the garbage looking for receipts or any other evidence that might help identify whoever cooked the drug.
Meth makers no longer need a large building in the woods where they can stow large pots and conceal tanks of anhydrous ammonia. Instead, the drug can be cooked in a 16-ounce plastic drink bottle in a method known as “one-pot cooks” or “shake and bake.” Addicts can start the “cook” in a bottle, stuff it in a backpack and drive down the road, with the drug almost impossible to detect.
“The people doing this want to get what they can as fast as they can,” said the agent who is not being identified because he works undercover. “That’s what makes it so hard to find and to catch these guys. It’s so portable. It’s aggravating.”
Applying heat and/or chemicals reduces the active ingredient in pseudoephedrine to meth. The small-scale, chemical method of cooking methamphetamine that has been spreading across South Carolina is dangerous because the chemicals create a massive amount of pressure that can cause a fiery explosion if not handled carefully.
And the small bottle allows cooks to carry the drug into more densely populated areas. Just Friday night, Columbia police charged a 27-year-old man from Summerville with making meth inside a plastic bottle in a Harbison hotel. As a precaution, officers evacuated nearby areas.
“Now that they’ve got this method where they can cook it in a bottle, unless we eliminate the main ingredient, we’re going to see more of it,” said Lexington County Sheriff James Metts.
That’s why some law enforcement officials are pushing for pseudoephedrine to be a prescription drug. And there are rumblings in the S.C. General Assembly that some lawmakers are interested, too.
Two years ago, South Carolina tried to curb meth production by placing limits on the amount of pseudoephedrine one person can purchase. The drug is placed behind pharmacy counters, and pharmacists swipe a customer’s driver’s license to see if the limit has been met.
But that process is not slowing down meth, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association.
“I was absolutely convinced the electronic monitoring would stop the illegal sales in their tracks,” Moore said.
But between 2007 and 2011, meth incidents in South Carolina increased more than 10 times, to 267 from 26, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
And statewide, shake and bake is the “No. 1 method for manufacturing meth in South Carolina,” said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division.
Metts has made meth enforcement a priority in his department since it was introduced in Lexington County in the early 2000s.
And, in the past five years, the number of meth lab busts there has grown to 51 in 2012 from nine in 2008.
Even more telling, is the number of locations where meth trash – but no people or drugs – was discovered, Last year, Lexington sheriff’s narcotic agents discovered 63 meth trash piles, up from 10 in 2008.
Last Monday, a team rolled out of the Lexington County sheriff’s headquarters early in the morning to visit 23 reported meth sites. Before the day was over, they would drive more than a hundred miles throughout the county. They would stop at homes on main highways and roll along dirt roads to knock on doors of abandoned mobile homes. They towed a trailer filled with equipment to handle decontamination and to carry evidence should they find an active lab.
At a single-wide mobile home on South Fork Road in Batesburg-Leesville, two agents banged on the front door while several others walked around the yard, looking behind storage sheds. Several hounds curiously watched from their dog houses.
Shortly after the agents’ arrival, two men walked up the lane from a nearby house where they were working on a home improvement project. One of them, who said he was the homeowner, raised his arms in the air and shouted, “Ain’t nothing out here, boys. If there is, someone put it there.”
The man, who said he had an upcoming sentencing hearing in federal court, signed his permission for agents to search the property. They found no evidence of meth manufacturing or use.
The homeowner told the agents that he recently posed for a photograph hugging a woman and posted it on Facebook. Another man who was interested in that woman probably called in the tip to police to seek revenge, the homeowner said.
“I hate y’all wasted your time,” he said as police got into their cars and left.
Those sorts of feuds often are the source of tips for drug investigators, said Lt. Sam Gunter of Lexington’s narcotics unit. Tips also come from neighbors who don’t want drug users nearby. Both types of tips can lead to arrests, Gunter said.
Often, the tips don’t provide any details that can be used to build an investigation. So the sheriff’s department puts them on a list and schedules visits.
On Monday, however, the narcotics investigators either did not find meth, or no one was around when evidence of meth manufacturing was discovered.
The one-pot cooking method has changed the game for law enforcement.
Gone are the days when meth manufacturers needed a building secreted away in the woods of rural Lexington County. There, they would cook meth using one of two methods.
One, known as a Nazi cook, used anhydrous ammonia as a key ingredient. The other, known as Red P, used the phosphate from match tops as an ingredient. Those suppliers would spend hours tending to large batches to sell to others.
“The one-pot method has pretty much taken over everything we’re seeing,” Gunter said.
In the one-pot method, users can whip up a one-gram dose in less than an hour. A gram is enough for one person to experience the heightened energy and intense alertness that meth brings, and users can be their own cooks.
Meth addicts are known to stay high for days, going without sleep. Then, they crash for days before starting the cycle over. Law enforcement has described it as a scourge on rural America.
“It really is the white man’s crack cocaine,” Moore said.
The one-pot method remains a volatile concoction prone to explosions.
One undercover agent described the bottles where meth is cooking as “ticking time bombs.” Manufacturers must constantly relieve the pressure from gases building inside by loosening then retightening the lids.
“It’s a really an insane method for doing it,” Moore said. “Either you cook it and you get meth or it blows up and you get burned.”
The one-pot method doesn’t require the large quantities of pseudoephedrine that once were needed to make a batch. However, law enforcement experts said they could not link the change in cook methods to the laws that limit purchase amounts.
The cooking method changed because the ingredients were more available, Berry said.
Some makers may use dozens of bottles to cook at one time, Moore said. And addicts still crave frequent hits.
Experts said meth makers obtain large quantities of pseudoephedrine by paying people to buy it on their behalf. The practice is called “smurfing.” Some people smurf in exchange for doses.
At least one lawmaker is drafting a bill that would make pseudoephedrine available only through a doctor’s prescription, Moore said. The sheriff’s association will discuss its support for the effort later this year, Moore said.
Experts expect a battle from insurance and pharmaceutical companies who would oppose making it a prescription drug.
But Metts said it is critical to slow meth’s spread. The drug erodes a community in so many ways, he said.
Addicts’ health deteriorates. Their children are exposed to toxic chemicals. Thefts rise as the addicts search for ingredients or quick cash to buy the drug.
“It spins off into so many other crimes,” Metts said.