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Meth labs are disappearing, but more meth is smuggled in

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This house in Sacred Heart was contaminated by a meth lab, so local officials knocked it down. Minnesota's meth law didn't stop this lab from being built, but it slowed its production. The meth users had their friends buying boxes of cold medicine, two at a time, across the area. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
When Minnesota's meth law went into place in August 2005, it joined a growing number of states fighting the spread of methamphetamine through legislation. The law limits the amount of cold medicine people can buy that contains pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is the primary ingredient in homemade meth, an illegal and powerfully addictive drug.

Since the law went on the books, meth lab numbers in Minnesota are down. Law enforcement officials say that shows the new law is helping the fight against the drug. But there are indications that fewer people are making their own meth not just because of the new law, but because more of the drug is being smuggled into the state.

Sacred Heart, Minn. — The sight of a two-story house being torn to pieces is enough to slow traffic through the small western Minnesota town of Sacred Heart. A construction worker wearing a face mask sits at the controls of a huge yellow backhoe, its scoop shovel claws through the walls and the roof of the house. A column from the front porch falls and rolls across the front yard.

Dust drifts across the neighborhood as a front-end loader picks up the debris, and drops it into the back of a dump truck headed for a landfill. Shards of wood mix with furniture and clothes. A child's car seat is perched on top of one of the piles of trash.

Everyone in town knows why this house is being destroyed. Just ask Lisa Harris, who lives across the street with her husband and two small children. Harris is standing in her driveway watching the deconstruction.

"We all knew, the entire town knew. It was just a matter of time before it went down. It's been going on for years," Harris said.

A few months ago, the cops raided this house and found a meth lab in a second floor bedroom. The house was so contaminated by the chemicals involved, a cleanup would have cost more than the house was worth. As a result, a Renville County ordinance requires the house come down, at the owner's expense.

This is exactly the type of scene Minnesota's meth law intends to prevent. The law limits the amount of decongestant a person can buy containing psuedoephedrine, like the cold medicine Sudafed, to two boxes a month. And those decongestants are now kept behind pharmacy counters to prevent them from being stolen.

Psuedoephedrine is the primary ingredient in meth. When meth is made, or cooked, the cold pills are ground up and mixed with various chemicals and solvents. It's a process prone to fires and explosions. For law enforcement officers, stumbling on a meth lab is a big fear, because of the caustic ingredients involved.

Sacred Heart Police Chief Norman Krueger found this meth lab. As the outside walls come down, Krueger can see the exposed second floor room that housed the lab. He says the state's new law means this meth lab produced less of the drug before it was shut down.

"These folks here were going out to buy it two boxes at a time in different stores, which is much more difficult. They can't walk in and buy a dozen boxes and walk out and go start manufacturing. They have to get their friends and their buddies to go out buy boxes here and there," Krueger said.

And while Krueger says some people will do whatever it takes to feed their addiction, he's confident Minnesota's new law will lower the number of meth labs in the state.

Minnesota's law enforcement officials say that's already happening, and point to dramatic figures as proof. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in 2004 there were about 500 meth labs seized in the state. This year so far, that number is less than 100. Clear proof to many that the law is doing its job.

But there's another reason those numbers are down. Fewer people are making their own meth, because more is coming in from Mexico.

Take a ride with Wright County drug agent Rebecca Howell, and you'll hear a meth lab travelogue. Every few miles on a drive along central Minnesota's back roads, Howell recalls another drug bust -- at a business, in a rundown trailer park, or a fancy lake home. After more than a decade as a drug agent, Howell has seen her share of meth labs.

But in the past year she's seen fewer labs in Wright County. In fact, this year officers have only found nine labs, about half the number in recent years.

That's welcome news for officer Howell, who must put on a chemical suit every time a lab is found, and sift through the poisoned remains. Now instead of spending days investigating and cleaning up smalltime meth labs, Minnesota's meth law allows Howell to focus more time on tracking down dealers who smuggle the finished product into the state.

"It's a little early yet to say what total affect it's had on methamphetamine, but it has slowed the manufacturing process. Which is a good thing," said Howell. "But our next step now is to try to do something about all the methamphetamine that's coming in."

Most of that meth comes from Mexico, and it has a lot of Minnesota customers. During recent arrests, Howell says meth users have told her very few people are still making their own meth.

Deborah Durkin, who's in charge of the Minnesota Department of Health's meth program, is hearing the same thing from other cops around the state. Durkin says while Minnesota's new meth law should get credit for a decrease in labs, the reason many drug users aren't making their own supply is because they don't have to.

"They don't need to risk their lives by doing something that is potentially explosive. And they don't need to risk long jail terms by getting caught cooking meth, because the price is low enough now so you can have it without cooking it," Durkin said.

Homemade meth has always made up a small amount of the drug here in Minnesota, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. Although cops tell Durkin less meth is now being made in Minnesota, the use of the drug hasn't slowed.

"That's a whole different category, and we haven't heard any of those people express a belief that the number of the users of the drug has gone down," said Durkin. "In fact we know that supplies are up, and believe that meth use is a growing problem, and not a declining problem in Minnesota."

National data shows the number of meth users is starting to level off. But Durkin says the number of users now considered addicted to the drug has increased dramatically.

She's encouraged by the fight that Minnesota law enforcement officials and communities are putting up against meth.

Minnesota's legislation may keep people from making meth, but it won't stop people from using meth. She says the only way to do that is to treat people who are addicted, and educate everyone else on the dangers of meth.