By Wendy Burton and Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writers
Muskogee’s meth problem is the worst in the state, local officials say.
Methamphetamine manufacturing is climbing dramatically in northeastern Oklahoma, especially in Muskogee.
In 2009, statistics show 32 meth labs were cleaned up by law enforcement. The number climbed to 110 in 2010 and 173 in 2011.
But this year, Muskogee’s Special Investigations Unit is on track to clean up about 400 labs.
And local and state officials say the latest anti-meth measure proposed in the state Legislature is all smoke and mirrors.
HB2941 will require Oklahoma pharmacists to use a national tracking system and will reduce the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be purchased by two grams a month per person. The bill already passed the House, and it goes to the Senate floor sometime early this week.
Dr. Mike Stratton of Muskogee opposes HB2941. Stratton said he is a big proponent of making pseudoephedrine a prescription medication for a number of reasons — especially for children’s sake.
But Oklahoma legislators have already rejected two bills that would make pseudoephedrine tablets a prescription medication.
“This new bill will do nothing to protect our children, nothing to protect us from having some knucklehead from cooking it right next door to us,” Stratton said. “Until it’s made a prescription, we won’t be putting a stop to any meth labs.”
Stratton said he’s seen all too often in his years as a pediatrician families and children devastated by meth use.
“I’ve seen a 16-year-old girl have a baby that was hooked on meth, and you would have thought she wasn’t 16 but 55 years old,” Stratton said. “I’ve seen perfectly regular, productive people turn into garbage after getting addicted to meth.”
Former meth cooks and addicts recently weighed in on HB2941 — and their consensus is the bill won’t make much difference.
“All we do is get every Joe off the street to go buy it for us,” said Jerry Adamson, a resident receiving treatment at the Faith-Based Therapeutic Community Corporation in Muskogee County.
Adamson and several others spoke candidly about sales tracking, restricting amounts that can be purchased and how to really put a stop to meth.
Mark Seabolt, the founder of FTCC and a former meth addict and cook, Adamson and several others said making pseudoephedrine a prescription would seriously hamper their efforts to cook meth. Adamson said every law the Legislature puts through does help slow cooks down, and he hopes laws continue to follow drug trends.
But the real solution to meth, the group said, is making treatment and rehabilitation available to many more people.
“I think what everybody is getting at here, is that there isn’t a man in here that needs to be in prison,” said Adamson’s wife Shannon, who was visiting her husband. “They need to be right here getting faith-based rehabilitation.”
Every man at the table agreed, and some even said prison only made them better meth cooks.
“I went into prison with an associate’s degree in cooking meth,” Seabolt said. “I came out with a Ph.D.”
A key selling point of HB2941 is lowering the monthly purchasable limit. Today, a person can legally buy 9 grams of pseudoephedrine each month. If the legislation passes, customers will be restricted to 7.2 grams per month.
“That doesn’t really impress us much,” said Command Sergeant Major John Pearson, with Muskogee Special Investigations Unit. “People who want pseudo will get pseudo, it’s as simple as that.”
The problem parallels that of meth cooks. Cooks, SIU officer Shawn Brown said, have a particular knack for finding new ways to produce meth. They also have a way of getting around pseudoephedrine laws.
Smurfs — people who purchase pseudoephedrine to give to cooks — will routinely hit their 9 gram limit. But the truly ingenious, Brown said, have found ways around that.
“A lot of times they’ll have a fake I.D. with a different name on it,” Brown said. “Or sometimes they’ll have their name spelled one way at one pharmacy and spelled a different way at another. That way they might hit their limit under one alias but they can still buy under a different name.”
Many names that appear on the tracking website are common knowledge to Brown. While at his computer, a Walmart employee sent Brown a text message to let him know a well-known pseudoephedrine buyer was in line. As Brown pulled the person’s name up on the registry, three red Xs appeared.
“He attempted to buy and was turned down three times this month,” Brown said, noting that being blocked while attempting to purchase more than the monthly limit of pseudoephedrine is a misdemeanor. “We’d love to be able to go and arrest every person who tries to go over their limit. But there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Oklahoma’s tracking system has done a good job stopping more than 76,000 pseudoephedrine sales per year since it was established in 2006, said Mark Woodward, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman.
But the tracking system hasn’t, and won’t, stop meth manufacturers from cooking, he said.
“Tracking reduced the number of meth labs for four or five years in Oklahoma,” Woodward said. “Then sometime around the fall of 2008 the ‘shake-and-bake’ method surfaced and labs began to soar again.”
The tracking software the new bill will require is sponsored by the drug industry, Woodward said. The only difference between it and the existing tracking system is that it tracks other states as well, not just Oklahoma.
And while Woodward said the state does want the software, it won’t work without making pseudoephedrine tablets a prescription medication.
The Oklahoma Legislature has killed bills twice to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, but Woodward believes there are legislators passionate enough about the issue to keep introducing prescription bills until one passes.
“We’ve heard the opposition say it will make it too difficult or even impossible for people with low-incomes or no insurance to get pseudoephedrine for allergies,” Woodward said. “But Oregon passed a similar law in 2005, and seven years later they still have reduced their number of labs to almost none.”
Woodward said the OBN wants to see only pseudoephedrine tablets made prescription, not soft gels or liquid.
“Right now, meth manufacturers cannot make meth from soft gels or liquid,” he said. “So as far as we’re concerned those can remain over-the-counter medications. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Another argument against prescription tablets Woodward has heard is meth manufacturers will simply figure out a way to make meth with something else, maybe even soft gels and liquid someday.
“That’s something that could happen, though it hasn’t happened in seven years in Oregon,” Woodward said. “And we’ll address new problems when they arise. But if we even put a stop to meth labs for five years — that is millions and millions of dollars saved, and numerous lives saved as well.”
Muskogee Community Anti-Drug Network Chairman Oscar Ray isn’t sure the new bill will have any impact on Muskogee’s meth problem.
“At this juncture everybody’s in a panic mode in a way to come up with something that will slow the tide,” Ray said. “But I doubt this bill will have much impact. Criminals figure out a way to get around any law they put on the books.”
Ray said a public media blitz is the way to go — though it may take years to see results, it’s time to change the perception of meth use beginning with children.
“No matter what the parents are doing at home, how do we get children and youth to see meth for what it is? How do we get them to never try it?” he said. “Why are people even tempted to try it?” Ray said. “That’s the big question right now. And it’s so powerful, one try and you are hooked. Where did we get this perception that you have to get high to have fun?”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or email@example.com.