ST. LOUIS — In suburban mansions and in the Mark Twain National Forest, in cornfields and in cheap motels, Missouri detectives are busting an average of eight makeshift drug labs a day, all of them set up to manufacture the inexpensive, extremely addictive powder known as meth.
In 2003, for the third year in a row, Missouri led the nation in the number of seizures of ingredients, equipment and hazardous waste related to the production of methamphetamine, the state reported Friday.
Missouri recorded 2,857 raids of meth-related sites. By contrast, Iowa and California -- the states with the next-highest totals -- each recorded about 1,240 busts last year, according to a report by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Most of Missouri's meth labs are small operations, cooking the drug for personal use, not wide distribution. Authorities say the number of seizures in the state is a testament to aggressive detective work. But it's also indicative of how ferociously methamphetamine has gripped rural America.
"I'm surprised every day at how many people are using meth," said Jim Willis, the methamphetamine investigator for rural Texas County, in south-central Missouri. "It's a full-time job just to keep the junkies under control."
The drug is especially popular in rural areas because it's cheap and easy to make using ingredients like anhydrous ammonia, a common crop fertilizer that cooks have taken to stealing by the tanker-truckload. Addicts have been known to set up their labs in farm fields, using the lush foliage of mature corn or soybeans as cover. By the time harvest rolls around, they've left the field strewn with garbage and, sometimes, toxic waste.
Manufacturing the drug takes very little space but produces strong, caustic fumes. That's another reason it's popular in rural areas: Cooks can brew it at a forest campsite or in an abandoned barn, where there are few neighbors to notice and report the burning odors.
Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana all report major meth problems in their sparsely populated farm belts.
"Any county in the Midwest will have labs," said Sgt. Tommy Wright, a narcotics investigator for Jefferson County, Mo.
Lately, however, authorities in Missouri have begun making busts in urban centers as well.
A few weeks ago, law enforcement raided an enormous lab in the college town of Springfield, Mo. "Virtually every room of the house had meth cooking activity in it," said Capt. Ron Replogle of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Fifteen months ago, another lab was uncovered in a 5,400-square-foot suburban home on a golf course in Eureka, Mo.
"It's pretty much spread statewide," Replogle said.
Meth -- also known as speed, ice or crank -- is a stimulant that can keep users awake for days on end; it can be smoked, snorted, injected or even stirred into a cup of coffee. Addicts report a powerful high. Sheriff's deputies, though, see not euphoria but paranoia in many longtime meth users.
"They're evasive, paranoid, combative. You can never predict what they're going to do," Wright said.
To address what many in the state call a "meth epidemic," Missouri Atty. Gen. Jay Nixon has proposed moving inmates serving time for meth-related crimes to a central prison, where the state could test the effectiveness of various rehabilitation programs. He also wants to strengthen criminal penalties for meth cooks and dealers.
Several states have already passed harsher laws. Illinois, for instance, no longer allows probation for repeat offenders. Michigan and Wisconsin have made it a felony to illegally dump meth waste. And North Dakota will prosecute anyone who possesses more than 24 grams of ingredients to be used to manufacture the drug.
More than a dozen states have also expanded their child-abuse laws to allow prosecution of adults who manufacture meth near kids. Investigators talk about finding toxic chemicals dumped in bathtubs and explosive brews burbling near cribs. A report released in Iowa last year found that on a typical day, 35% of the child-abuse cases referred to state investigators involved methamphetamine.
Several states have restricted sales of decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient. Hazleton, Iowa, pop. 950, even requires customers buying cold medication to present identification and sign a log.
In Missouri, law-enforcement agencies have had some success training store clerks to call the police when they spot someone returning again and again to purchase Sudafed, road flares, lithium batteries, drain cleaners or other ingredients known to be used in the production of meth.
But even with tougher criminal codes and better rehabilitation, authorities say the key to controlling the drug remains on-the-ground detective work to root out and destroy labs. That's why Nixon says he's not ashamed that Missouri again tops the charts in meth busts.
"I'm very concerned that from a shallow political perspective, some people would say, 'Law enforcement should only work half as hard as last year' so our numbers would drop and people would write stories saying Missouri is winning the war on meth," Nixon said. "I obviously don't like to see 2,800 meth labs in Missouri. But we need to win this fight, not appear to win it."
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For three straight years, Missouri has led the nation in seizures of ingredients, equipment and hazardous waste associated with methamphetamine production. Here's a look at the states with the most meth busts:
Source: El Paso Intelligence Center, a federal narcotics task force