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Meth monster is back with a vengeance

Legislation in the General Assembly is a good step toward ridding Tennessee of its standing as the nation's No. 1 producer.


Methamphetamine is the most dangerous, addictive and destructive drug I have ever encountered.

With more than 2,000 meth lab seizures in 2010, Tennessee now has the sad distinction of leading the nation in meth production, overtaking Missouri for that disgraceful title.

Last year, 484 minor children in Tennessee were removed and placed in state custody as a result of being exposed to meth. More than one-third of all burn victims admitted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Burn Unit receive treatment as a result of meth lab explosions and burns, which drives up public health costs.

Local sheriffs and police departments now have to do more with less to respond to, contain and clean up the environmental hazard produced by meth labs now that the federal government has eliminated funding to states because of recent budget cuts.

Meth use creates other crimes, such as domestic violence and child abuse, burglary, theft and other property offenses.

According to Tennessee Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons, the meth epidemic has a total annual cost of more than $1.6 billion to the taxpayers of this great state.

Those of us in the criminal justice system have now learned that, despite our best efforts, we cannot just arrest, prosecute and incarcerate our way out of this enormous public safety problem that plagues Tennessee.

We must be proactive as well as reactive in our approach, and we must do something now to kill the meth monster. We simply do not have the luxury to wait until there are more studies, more resources or more victims.

In 2004, we slowed down meth production in Tennessee by moving certain cold medicines that contain the primary ingredient in meth -- pseudoephedrine -- behind the counter, and requiring a signature log for all purchases.

At the same time, Tennessee's district attorneys general engaged in statewide public education and awareness campaigns that warned of the dangers of meth.

But meth has now come back with a vengeance in a new form, produced in smaller "one-pot" batches that are more mobile, supplied by "smurfers," who circumvent the pharmacy log system by hopping from store to store to accumulate cold medicine for meth cooks, like their little blue cartoon namesakes.

Senate Bill 1265/House Bill 1051 represents a comprehensive approach by the Haslam administration to enact various provisions to combat meth manufacture, and it has solid bipartisan support as it moves through the General Assembly. Some of the key provisions of the bill include:

Broadening the criminal offense of aggravated child endangerment to include manufacturing meth in the presence of a minor child.

Providing for mandatory minimum fines against persons convicted of promoting meth manufacture by "smurfing" pseudoephedrine, with the fines to be used by local law enforcement for meth lab cleanup.

Requiring pharmacists to personally counsel a potential purchaser of pseudoephedrine and to decline the sale if not for a legitimate medical condition.

Requiring all Tennessee pharmacies to use the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) computer data system to provide for real-time electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases, with a stop sale mechanism for persons attempting to purchase more than the allowable daily or monthly limit, and to allow law enforcement access to the data for enhanced criminal investigative and interdiction purposes.

This legislation is a good step forward in the fight against meth in Tennessee, and the Public Safety Coalition hopes to see real and immediate results from its enactment in reducing the number of meth labs across Tennessee.

However, if the meth epidemic continues to destroy lives, families and communities across our state at its current rate, we may have to consider the ultimate proactive measure of making cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine available by prescription only.

In states like Oregon and Mississippi, where this drastic measure was recently enacted, meth lab numbers have immediately and dramatically decreased.

Tennessee's sheriffs, chiefs of police and district attorneys support the proposals outlined in Senate Bill 1265/House Bill 1051, and stand ready to implement the bills' requirements while continuing to develop further ideas and measures to solve this monumental problem.

We hope the General Assembly and Gov. Bill Haslam will join us. The time is now.

Mike Dunavant is district attorney general for the 25th Judicial District and chairman of the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition.

May 12, 2011
Memphis Commercial Appeal
By Mike Dunavant