Legislators struggle with Arkansas' meth epidemic

Saturday, February 5th 2005, 4:11 pm
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ Among issues under debate at the Arkansas Capitol this legislative session, none have included drama like the fight to rid the state of methamphetamine.

From tales of young children with their throats and stomachs permanently scarred by drinking sulfuric acid used in meth labs, to stories of toddlers addicted to the drug because it entered their systems under their fingernails while crawling on meth-contaminated floors, stories of the drug's devastation fill committee hearings.

A bill to lock pseudoephedrine, the drug's key ingredient, behind pharmacy counters and strictly regulate its distribution seems certain of passage and is being touted by Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe and others as major blow to methamphetamine manufactures.

But at the same time, legislators are considering rolling back tough sentences for some first and second-time meth offenders caught with smaller quantities of the drug. Advocates of the sentencing changes say the state simply cannot keep up with a prison population that is swelling from the methamphetamine epidemic.

``We've got to do something. We can spend $170,000 to keep someone in prison for eight years, or we can spend $20,000 to send them to rehab for 12 months. It's as simple as that,'' said Sen. Jack Critcher, D-Batesville, who sponsored the sentencing bill.

The Arkansas Sheriffs' Association and the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association oppose Critcher's legislation, which passed a Senate committee last week. The bill would exempt first or second-time offenders in possession of less than five grams of the drug from a law that requires those convicted of making meth with the intent to distribute it to serve at least 70 percent of their prison sentence.

Chuck Lange, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff's Association, said sheriffs' deputies and police are in a daily war with methamphetamine manufactures who often use surveillance cameras and automatic weapons to protect their labs.

``We've been real fortunate not to have lost a lot of deputies and a lot of city police,'' he told a Senate committee.

Fear of violent meth addicts and manufactures is one reason Arkansas pharmacists long resisted efforts to lock meth ingredients behind pharmacy counters, said Sen. Percy Malone, D-Arkadelphia and sponsor of the bill to restrict pseudoephedrine.

``We are now putting this street drug of choice in the pharmacy. It is putting this drug that people are addicted to in the prescription department,'' said Malone, a pharmacist himself who began pushing for the change in 1997.

In committee testimony, representatives of pharmacists groups said they agreed to support Malone's bill this year after seeing the results of an Oklahoma law. Ten months after the law took effect, meth lab seizures in Oklahoma are down more than 80 percent.

``To see the sort of diminution we've seen, there is absolutely no other reason,'' said Lonnie Wright, who heads Oklahoma's drug agency.

Oklahoma averaged 105 meth lab busts a month before the law took effect last April, said Wright, director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. By November, the number had dropped to 19.

But Malone said he fears the drug epidemic could circumvent state legislators' efforts. He said experts expect a surge of Mexican-manufactured methamphetamine as states' laws catch up with domestic manufactures.

Malone said he began his push to legislate the meth epidemic after drug taskforce members showed him pictures of methamphetamine labs with baby bottles and pacifiers in them.

``The driving force for me was learning how devastating this is for the children of Arkansas,'' he said.

For Critcher, widely considered the Legislature's methamphetamine expert, his push to legislate the meth epidemic came from running a grocery store in his tiny northeast Arkansas hometown of Grubbs.

Critcher, who served his first term in the Arkansas House in 1995, said that he and his wife saw each day the devastation the drug wrought on their small community. Starting in the late 1990s, his wife began organizing community forums to discuss how the town could combat the problem.

``When you have a grocery store in a small community you know everybody in town. You are really in touch with what goes on in that community. It's easy for anyone to recognize and define the problem, but doing something about it is different and she was aware that so many people didn't have a clue when it comes to what does meth look like, what does a lab look like, how do you identify someone using meth,'' he said.

Critcher later succeeded in passing a bill that added an additional 10 years to the sentence of methamphetamine manufacturers caught making the drug in the presence of children. He also led efforts to keep a law requiring meth manufacturers serve at least 70 percent of their sentences from sunsetting.

Five years later, Critcher said the state's prison population has swollen so greatly that the legislators must either pay to expand prisons or ease the methamphetamine sentencing laws. A bill to ease the 70 percent requirement for some meth manufacturers failed to advance in the 2003 session.

Along with Critcher's bill to exempt first and second-time meth manufactures caught with less than five grams from the 70 percent law, he also has proposed a bill to make meth offenders sentenced under the 70 percent law eligible to have their sentences reduced for good behavior.

Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said the changes to the law might have a better chance of passing this session because growing pressure on the prison system.

``The reality is, if we are going to keep incarcerating people at this rate, we are either going to have to keep building more beds or we can try and slow the prison population growth,'' said Tyler, who said 3,000 of Arkansas' 13,500 state prison inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes. And she said meth is largely to blame for a spike in female inmates.

``It's not a question of trying to be soft on crime, it's the reality of having to be smart with me. It's realizing that we cannot afford to lock everybody up for a lock time. We have to make choices.''