Drug task force faces high cost of meth prosecution

Published 3:37 pm Monday, April 26, 2010

Every day, hundreds of thousands of Shelby County residents walk past them in the aisles of the area’s stores.

Drain cleaner, sinus medication, ammonia and the other components used to create crystal methamphetamine usually do not carry high price tags at a Walmart, CVS or Target, but the price of combining the ingredients to create the drug can last a lifetime.

“Most people make meth for their own personal use,” said Lt. Chris George, commander of the Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force. “If they are just making something for that day, it would probably cost them between $20 and $30 to buy the ingredients.”

But those costs could increase exponentially for anyone caught making the drug.

Everyone found guilty of manufacturing a controlled substance faces a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in jail and up to $60,000 in fines for each count. Prison terms can be as long as 99 years per count.

And because cases involving meth sometimes involve other crimes, like gun offenses or stolen property, authorities can stack charges against those arrested for the crimes, George said.

“There are different enhancements we can add to that manufacture charge – like if the case involved child endangerment or firearms,” George said. “And we will always seek the maximum penalty allowed for each offense.”

In addition to jail time and fines, meth use can also carry an emotional and medical toll.

Whether meth users seek voluntary treatment or are ordered by the court to seek help, they could be in for a lengthy and difficult ordeal, George said.

“If you seek medical care, I’ve heard it can take up to seven years to finally be rid of the addiction after you stop,” George said. “And that’s not just the physical addiction, but also the mental addiction to the drug.”

Meth can also place a heavy burden on law enforcement agencies, especially the Drug Enforcement Task Force, George said.

Shelby County authorities responded to 25 meth-related cases in the past six months, and prosecuting those crimes comes at a high cost.

“The cost isn’t so much a percentage of our budget, it’s the resources we have to dedicate,” George said. “If we suspect a meth lab at a location, we send between four and six officers to knock on the door.

“Then, if we find a meth lab, two of our guys have to stay with it until a company we contract with comes out and properly disposes of it,” George added. “All of those guys tied up with the meth lab could be working on something else.”

Some law enforcement officers have paid a heavy price for busting meth labs.

Meth labs can be as small as one bottle, as meth manufacturers can combine ingredients into a 2-liter soda bottle and shake it up to produce the drug. As a result, labs have become mobile and hard to track, George said.

“A few months ago, we were actually at a residence looking for stolen items and other drugs when one of the suspects threw one of the one-bottle labs in the toilet,” George said. “It immediately caught fire, and two of our guys actually had to get medical attention.

“But every meth lab tip we get, we take it and run with it,” George added. “Is 25 meth labs in six months a problem? Yes, but 50 or 100 labs would be an epidemic, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”