Meth lab seizures drop 41% as law is implemented

WASHINGTON -- Methamphetamine lab seizures plummeted 41% during the first year of a law targeting the drug once commonly produced in the Central Valley, but officials cautioned Tuesday that gangs still are exploiting loopholes.

"Don't get me wrong, I think the law is terrific," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, "but there are things that need to be tweaked."

The law that took full effect in September 2006 requires sellers of certain cold medicines to register and keep the drugs behind the counter. More than 76,000 retailers have registered, officials told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. The law is aimed at preventing meth manufacturers from obtaining the chemicals used in their illicit production.

"There is evidence that we are making progress," said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who leads the finance committee.

But shortcomings also have become apparent in the law. Stores, for instance, may be registering under the new law, but because the stores lack a national database, gang members still can circumvent limits on drug purchases.

In 2002, officials seized 1,744 meth labs in California. By last year, with many labs reportedly moving to Mexico, the California lab seizures had fallen to 353.

Law enforcement officials have said that the increasing cost of manufacturing meth appears to have prompted some meth producers to switch to growing marijuana. Narcotics agents have destroyed record numbers of marijuana plants in Valley counties this year.

The Central Valley's anti-meth campaign is coordinated through the Central Valley HIDTA. Ruzzamenti and a small staff work with state, local and federal anti-drug officers in the region between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Meth is still easy to get, many teenagers believe. Nearly one in four teens say it would be "very easy" or "somewhat easy" to procure the drug, according to a first-of-its-kind survey issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and the Palo Alto-based Meth Project. According to the survey, 24% of teenagers believe that using meth "helps you lose weight" and 22% believe that using meth "helps you deal with boredom."

Authored in part by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the "Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act" raised the bar for selling cold medicines that can be used in manufacturing methamphetamine. Now, retailers selling medicines containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or a third, related chemical must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The stores must keep the drugs behind the counter. Customers must sign a logbook and are limited to total purchases of nine grams a month.

The logbooks, though, need not be electronically connected, so there is an easy way to track a customer's overall purchases. Ruzzamenti said a Modesto-area gang this year exploited that loophole by hiring the homeless and sending them to different stores throughout the Central Valley. They were signing logbooks, but the logbooks from different stores weren't being compared or tallied.

"There needs to be some kind of database," Ruzzamenti said. "We need some way to connect the dots."

A top Drug Enforcement Administration official agreed Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee. Some stores maintain paper logbooks, while others keep electronic records. The official added that an estimated 30,000 or so sellers of regulated chemicals have yet to register.

"There are still a significant number of sellers of these products who have not self-certified," noted Joseph Rannazzisi, the DEA's deputy assistant administrator.

Later this month, the federal agency will conduct a mass mailing to potentially affected businesses.

Still, federal drug officials cited other signs of progress. In 2003, for instance, 3,663 children were reported to be exposed to toxic meth labs nationwide. So far this year, the number of exposed children has dropped to 319.