Banner Staff Writer
“Out of the skillet and straight into the fire.”
Those are the words of Tennessee Meth Task Force Director Tommy Farmer as he met with Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and others in response to a notice on federal funding to clean up the scourge of meth’s mess.
“We were notified by letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration a few weeks ago,” said Ruth.
Present Wednesday afternoon at the meeting with the sheriff were Chip Saltsman, Fleischmann’s chief of staff, and Jim Hippe, legislative director and counsel, along with Bradley County Sheriff’s Office Drug Enforcement Lt. Jimmy Smith and Chief Deputy Wayne Bird.
The focus of the meeting was simple — what to do about lack of funding to cleanup clandestine methamphetamine labs.
Saltsman asked the sheriff, “If a lab bust was to occur today, what would happen?”
The sheriff walked Fleischmann and others through the procedure in approaching, assessing and disposing of the dangerous chemicals and meth labs which ultimately make the “moonshine of the new millennium.”
Farmer also explained the support TMTF gives to local law enforcement.
“We have five services to provide —Community outreach, community programs, training for first responders and law enforcement, response trucks and our intelligence system,” said Farmer.
“Retired law enforcement with TMTF makes up the people who respond to support law enforcement in cleanup. They give support and supplies,” explained Farmer.
Farmer reported a budget of $3.1 million last year due to the spike in a new form of meth cookery.
“We anticipated some storms,” said Farmer, relating to the bad economy and federal funding being dropped, “so we obtained additional funding to keep us operating and that has carried us; but we have cut back and are covering just the fundamentals.”
At most, Farmer said the TMTF can operate for another 1 1/2 years at present, without any major spikes in meth production and cleanup.
“We also lost the Tennessee National Guard support which supplied us intelligence,” said Farmer.
Fleischmann listened attentively as the director spoke.
“This is a national problem which has been forced on the local level to bear the burden,” he added.
“The federal government needs to step-up the ‘Combat Meth Act’ which addresses the importation of pseudoephedrine used in meth production.”
During the past five years, the importation has grown from 300,000 kilograms to over 600,000, despite the increased controls limiting the sale of the precursor ingredient crucial to the cooks who whip up the deadly cocktail.
“We tightened our belt but the importation, [despite] legislation and better controls — it has still more than doubled,” said Farmer.
He attributed the fact that “smurfs,” people who travel to pharmacies and obtain their limits of pseudoephedrine, then sell back to meth cooks, have opened the loophole in the legislation to put pseudo behind drug counters and prompted documentation of consumers who may be using the drug legally.
Patterns are generally established due to documentation and lab busts are made if abuse is evident.
Smith said a lab cleanup typically takes 5-12 hours, costs up to $5,000 or greater and is extremely dangerous to those who begin the initial investigation, assessment and disposal.
Four so-called “shake-n-bake” bottles were discovered Tuesday.
Shake-n-bake is a newer method to produce meth.
Chemicals are introduced to plastic bottles such as juice or soft drink containers and the product makes its “one-molecule” change to methamphetamine.
“They are called generators,” said Smith, explaining the process.
“Each lab is different and costs to clean (them) up can be different. The four shake-n-bake bottles cost approximately $900 to dispose of,” said Smith.
“The sheriff and Detective Jimmy Smith are going to have to do this,” Farmer stated.
Cleanup has to be done due to the dangerous chemicals and meth byproducts left behind by the meth cooks.
Ruth said projected costs will be half a million dollars next year.
“This is going to be a struggle due to our budget cuts. After legislation to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, lab seizures dropped by 80 percent. But the ‘smurfing,’ and the shake-method,” once again tax the local budgets, he said.
“Once cleanup and recovery is done, nothing is reusable,” said Ruth.
Even the suits and storage containers have to be cleaned or disposed of. Farmer said shake-n-bake has even changed since it was developed by a backyard chemist.
“It has gone from ‘toxic’ to a more dangerous-type process,” he said.
Cooks are now using nails and marbles in the process, virtually making a volatile chemical mixture with an explosive history and creating a “bomb,” which can be dangerous to all involved.
“Who is the market?” asked Fleischmann.
“The market is everyone or anyone who may and can become addicted to meth,” answered Smith.
Smith went on to say the drug is highly and quickly addictive.
“Meth is an easy source for an addict,” said Farmer.
Prior to legislation putting the precursor sinus medicine used in meth production behind the drugstore counter, Bradley County was No. 1 in aggressive meth lab seizure and enforcement.
Tennessee is now No. 1 in the U.S.
“Controls have to be in place,” said Farmer.
“Oregon returned pseudoephedrine to a controlled substance and their 360 labs went down to 12 and it has remained there.”
“Of $20 million dollars the federal government had to aid states and counties in the war against meth, over $4 million went to Tennessee for the cleanup,” said Farmer.
“A great issue for us is if the TMTF went away,” said Ruth.
The congressman’s legislative director, Hippe, said “hopefully when budgets are passed, we will have money for 2011.”
Ways are being examined on how to cut costs and utilize local and trained, certified individuals to clean up meth.
“This meeting has certainly put the issue in better focus. It is a national problem as well as local and we all need to work together as a team,” said Fleischmann.