Law enforcement may have to change approach to stem meth tide

Wednesday, August 4th 2004, 5:38 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An Oklahoma law restricting the sale of cold medicines used in making methamphetamine could make the state a prime target for drug smugglers, officials at a narcotics conference said Wednesday.

The law, passed by the Legislature this spring, bans the sale of cold medicines with pseudoephedrine in supermarkets and convenience stores. Instead, customers must present a photo ID to a pharmacist and sign for the medicine.

Authorities say the law has been effective in reducing the number of meth labs in the state. Now the concern is that Mexican drug cartels may step in to fill the void, said John Coonce, a field program specialist for the National Drug Intelligence Center.

"The problem is in the (Mexican) groups trying to fill the demand for the drug," said Coonce. "There are an awful lot of highways in Oklahoma that lead right to the Mexican border."

Coonce says counties in western Oklahoma are seeing an increase in crystal meth, a more pure form of methamphetamine, often manufactured in Mexico.

Members of the Association of Oklahoma Narcotic Enforcers gathered in Oklahoma City this week to discuss the changing meth culture and attend training workshops on a variety of issues including undercover operations and surveillance.

Meth lab seizures were down by 124 during the first six months of the year, even though the law didn't take effect until June. The numbers for July haven't been released yet.

Law enforcement officials in Texas and Kansas are concerned that meth cooks may scour communities near the state lines for decongestants such as Sudafed and Claritin-D.

In May, four Oklahoma residents were arrested in Harper County, Kansas, after buying about 20 boxes of cold medicine.

Police also found a map that outlined every Wal-Mart in the Wichita metropolitan area and $4,700 in their vehicle.

"I did not ever promise that by doing this that we would do away with meth," said Lonnie Wright, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. "But we are reducing the number of neglected children and the waste from methamphetamine labs."

The respite in meth lab seizures is giving law enforcement time to train and focus resources on breaking down the complex organizations that traffic the drug into the state.

"This has allowed law enforcement to take a breather," Wright said. "For a decade they've been overwhelmed with meth labs and seizures."

Now law enforcement can begin gathering intelligence, infiltrating cells and breaking up an organization, instead of sending addicts to jail, Wright said.

"We hit an organization, we displace everybody who is attached to it," Wright said.

Wright said his agency has been limited in pursuing Mexican drug cartel cells in Oklahoma because the agency lacks Hispanic officers and agents who can speak Spanish.

"We're actively recruiting people," Wright said. "We're doing everything we can as fast as we can possibly do it."