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AG Cooper delivers final report on meth summit to legislators

Release date: 5/5/2004

Raleigh: Attorney General Roy Cooper today delivered his final report to legislators on how to combat the spread of dangerous drug labs that manufacture methamphetamine in North Carolina based on the results of a statewide summit.

“These secret illegal drug labs put our children and our communities on the path to violence and destruction,” said Cooper, who convened the state’s first-ever summit on meth last fall. “We’re telling these criminals that we will find your secret labs, we will bust them up and we will put you in jail.”

Today’s report includes findings that document the dangers of meth as well as strategies to fight back against the drug and the threat it poses to public safety. According to the report, North Carolina has made progress but meth threatens to overwhelm the state’s law enforcement, social services, public health facilities and courtrooms unless steps are taken. In 1999, the first year that meth labs were reported in North Carolina, State Bureau of Investigation agents busted 9 labs. That number has skyrocketed, with agents shutting down 177 labs in 2003 and 108 labs so far in 2004.

Most meth makers who are arrested do not serve active prison time, something that Cooper wants to change. The report calls on the General Assembly to increase penalties against meth manufacturers from a Class H felony to at least a Class C felony. Legislators should also consider enhancing the criminal penalty when a child is present in a meth lab or endangered by meth. In 2003, children were found living in one-fourth of homes with meth labs busted in 2003. These children face risks of fire, explosion, and exposure to toxic chemicals as well as abuse and neglect.

In addition, North Carolina must prevent the illegal manufacturing of meth by beefing up its laws against the possession of precursor ingredients needed to “cook” the drug. The report recommends increasing the penalty for possessing meth ingredients from a Class H felony to at least a Class F to discourage the growth of meth labs. The report also asks legislators to add meth to the list of drugs that can trigger a charge of second-degree murder when the drug causes an overdose death. Legislation based on these recommendations and backed by Cooper is slated to be considered by the General Assembly during its upcoming session.

The report also says that the public needs to be educated to recognize meth labs and that prosecutors need help going after meth makers. Specific report recommendations include: a public awareness effort with videos, brochures and a website so that citizens can learn to identify and report dangerous meth labs in their community; specialized training so that people such as landlords, hotel and motel workers, and garbage collectors can quickly spot and tell law enforcement about a potential lab; and training for prosecutors in how to handle meth-related cases and how to use existing environmental laws to bring added charges against meth lab operators.

“Even with more help to fight the problem, we can expect the number of labs busts to continue to grow as more people learn to spot and report meth labs,” said Cooper. “Fighting meth will take shutting down labs, stopping drug abuse, and helping those who are hooked on the drug.”

To cut down on the easy availability of meth precursors, the report calls on retailers and law enforcement to work together to limit huge sales and theft of over-the-counter cold medications that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth. Suggestions include: curbing the amount of theses medicines sold to a single customer or kept out on store shelves; placing precursors behind a service counter; alerting shoppers that aisles where these products are sold are kept under video surveillance; and training store employees and management to report suspicious purchases or thefts to law enforcement.

Additional recommendations include better training and equipment for first responders such as firefighters and emergency workers; more resources for the SBI, the only law enforcement agency in the state trained to respond to meth labs; help for social service agencies that care for children found in meth labs; and more treatment for meth addicts in the counties hardest hit by meth. The report also calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to develop and distribute a medical protocol for health care workers who treat patients exposed to meth labs, and says that statewide guidelines developed by DHHS for cleaning up homes contaminated by meth should be put in place.

Meth is a potent synthetic drug that is “cooked” in labs often located in homes, apartments, motel rooms and vehicles. The drug is very addictive and can cause paranoia and violence. The labs are highly toxic and can explode or catch fire. Tell-tale signs of a lab include empty blister packs of decongestant, glass cookware and a strong chemical odor.

In October 2003, Cooper convened committees of experts at the North Carolina Methamphetamine Summit in Winston-Salem to begin the work of developing a statewide plan to combat meth. Financial assistance for the Summit that lead to both the preliminary and final reports was provided by Governor’s Crime Commission, the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, the North Carolina Narcotic Enforcement Officers’ Association, and Wake Forest University, site of the Summit.

A copy of the final report is available online at www.ncdoj.com under “What’s New.”