Federal, state officials gather in Oklahoma City to tackle meth problem

Thursday, July 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma needs to tighten control over the sale of cold medicine and other methamphetamine ingredients to stop the spread of the ``No. 1 drug problem in rural America,'' the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said Thursday.

``This is a drug we cannot blame on our South American neighbors,'' Asa Hutchinson said at a meth summit in Oklahoma County. ``It is in our back yard.''

Seizures of methampetamine in Oklahoma have increased 8,000 percent in the past eight years, enough to rank the state at the top nationally for the number of seizures per capita. In Oklahoma City, law officers raided 192 meth labs in 2001, compared with just 10 in 1997.

The DEA chose Oklahoma and three other states to hold meth summits this year.

Hutchinson said the drug is rampant here because it's a rural state where meth ingredients _ pseudoephedrine, anhydrous ammonia, iodine crystals and drain cleaner _ are easily available. Meth cooks steal anhydrous ammonia from farmers and buy iodine at feed stores.

The state's struggling economy also contributes to the problem, he said. Meth users can stay awake for up to two weeks at a time, and many hold down more than one job.

``Whenever you look at people who use methamphetamine, you're not usually looking at somebody on a street corner of a city that is down and out,'' Hutchinson said. ``You might be looking at someone who might be a young teenager or housewife who uses as weight control, not knowing the extraordinary danger. You might be looking at someone who's working two jobs.''

The DEA director urged Oklahoma law officers and legislators to look at successful efforts in Utah, where officials have restricted the sale of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine. In Jackson County, Mo., voters passed a one-eighth-cent sales tax to crack down on meth manufacturers.

``Communities are fighting back,'' said Hutchinson, who has visited 26 states to discuss meth.

He also suggested Oklahoma businesses drug test their employees and create programs to help employees with addictions. About 75 percent of drug users are employed.

Hutchinson said he is encouraging Canada to regulate the amount of pseudoephedrine it imports from China. U.S. officials seize 25 percent of the imported pseudoephedrine as it comes across the border, he said.

The DEA has spent $2.6 million in the past three years to clean up seized meth labs in Oklahoma. The agency also has trained 340 state and local officers, and has distributed $2,000 in safety equipment to many police and sheriff's departments in the state.

A few hundred people _ including law enforcement officers, judges, clergy and educators from around the state _ attended the one-day summit, which was sponsored by the DEA and the National Crime Prevention Council.

Many speakers said they are shocked at how methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in Oklahoma in the past five years.

Meth cooks are whipping up batches ``in the back seat or a trunk of a car, or in your local motel room that you thought you were safe in next door, or your neighbor's house,'' said Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane.

In the early 1990s, law officers raided a meth lab once every few months, he said. Last year in Oklahoma County, authorities raided an average of five labs per week.

From 50 percent to 70 percent of inmates held in jails across the state are meth users, said state Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

``This is a widespread and a dangerous problem facing the state of Oklahoma,'' he said.

Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said the meth epidemic is harming families, children, the economy and the environment.

``It will destroy our state,'' she said. ``It is destroying our families.''