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Meth in Missouri

Mexican gangs may be moving into meth.

Missouri drug investigators say there are fewer makeshift labs churning out methamphetamine, but they also warn the state's menacing meth problem might be taking a new direction - changing from small-time illegal operations to a fertile market for imported drugs.

Police say imported meth is starting to sneak into Missouri as area drug labs shut down. Just last month, seven Mexican citizens pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of conspiring to distributes large quantities of meth in southwestern Missouri. Police in the St. Louis,Missouri area say they expect to see similar cases in the area as organized crime, particularly Mexican drug-trafficking groups, take over the local meth trade.

While Missouri continues to lead the nation in meth lab busts, the numbers are declining. Police reported more than 2,200 lab seizures last year. Figures released Wednesday by the Missouri Highway Patrol show a statewide 19 percent drop compared with 2004.

Officials credit a new state law restricting the over-the-counter sale of certain cold pills that provided a cheap ingredient for meth. In each of the last five months of 2005, raids on meth labs declined by more than 40 percent over the same period in 2004. The cold-pill law went into effect July 15.

According to crime statistics, Midwestern states now lead the nation in the number of meth labs raided by police. Rounding out the top five states are Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and Iowa. Missouri and the eight states it borders were home to 54 percent of all known meth labs last year.

Illinois climbed from fifth place in 2004 to second place, but the number of labs discovered there dropped to 951 from 1,005.

More than 30 percent of Missouri's meth labs were found in six St. Louis,Missouri area counties, and four of those counties were among the top five in the state. Jefferson County led the state with 259 raids and seizures, and St. Charles County finished second with 136 incidents. Police counted 104 raids and seizures in Franklin County,Missouri 94 in St. Louis County,Missouri 48 in Lincoln County,Missouri 45 in Warren County,Missouri and six in St. Louis city,Missouri.

None of the St. Louis area counties saw a large drop in the number of labs. In fact, St. Charles and Lincoln counties had an increase, and the patrol said the Jefferson County number was constant.

Last year, meth cooks in the St. Louis area could simply cross into Illinois to get large quantities of cold pills. That's not the case now.

Cold-pill laws.

In outstate Missouri, authorities credit large decreases in meth labs to the restrictions on sales of cold pills. State law designates most over-the-counter pseudoephedrine medications as controlled substances. That means consumers who want to buy Sudafed and many other decongestants now can get them only at pharmacies, and buyers must agree to have their identities recorded in logs that can be inspected by police.

This year a similar measure went into effect in Illinois. Now, more than a dozen states - including every one bordering Missouri - limit how much pseudoephedrine can be sold to a customer. Store clerks must also record the identities of people who buy the cold pills.

Illinois' new law eliminated easy access to pseudoephedrine for meth cooks in the St. Louis,Missouri area, according to Cpl. Jason Grellner, commander of the Franklin County,Missouri drug task force.

"I can think of only one lab we found all last month," Grellner said Wednesday. He said that, typically, the unit would find 12 to 15 labs in February.

Sgt. Gary Higginbotham, commander of the Jefferson County,Missouri drug task force, said meth cooks routinely drive as far as Georgia for cold pills. He said his unit, the most successful in the country at finding meth labs, still found several labs every week. The unit raided 23 labs last month. Last year, the task force averaged about 30 lab raids per month.

Black market action.

Police say those labs that continue to operate are often supplied by so-called pill brokers, who amass thousands of pills and either sell them to drug cooks or trade the pills for finished meth. That means those Missourians who continue to make meth tend to cook larger batches to cover the increased cost of production.

"There's still a small number of clandestine labs operating," Grellner said. "But the days of the normal 500-to-1,000-pill (batch) are gone. People are either cooking very small amounts - enough for them to stay high for the day - or they're investing a lot of money and paying a premium for bulk quantities of pills."

Large quantities of pseudoephedrine pills are now sold on the black market for as much as $1 per pill, Grellner said. In most stores, consumers can buy a 24-pack of the medication for less than $4.

More troubling is what police say is the increasing presence in Missouri of large, Mexican drug syndicates that can import meth made at massive labs south of the border. Though meth use in Missouri has been widespread for more than a decade, the proliferation of labs kept the street price of meth low. With little profit margin in meth, organized crime largely stayed out of the trade.

But now that's changing.

Grellner said that a highly potent, crystallized meth called "ice" was flooding into Franklin County,Missouri and that he believed the drugs were coming from Mexico, or from Mexican drug groups based in California.

Police say that's what happened last year in western Missouri, which saw the biggest drop in the number of labs raided by police in 2005.

In recent weeks, seven Mexican citizens have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from Operation Lucky Charm, a federal investigation of a conspiracy to distribute large amounts of meth in southwestern Missouri. More than 10 pounds of meth - enough to keep scores of addicts high for months - were seized last year in arrests stemming from the investigation.

Police here say that's exactly what they're preparing for. If addicts can't make their own supply, they'll find the money to buy it wherever they can find it.

"The pill law is helpful for us, no doubt about it," said Higginbotham. "But it isn't going to stop the meth problem. You can legislate a lot of things, but you can't legislate out demand."