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Meth-lab battle is a 'continuing struggle' locally

The number of methamphetamine labs seized in Jackson County held steady in 2006, maintaining progress made around the state at stopping home labs.

Statistics compiled by the Oregon Department of Justice show that the number of meth-making operations, including labs, dump sites and chemical stockpiles, found statewide dipped to 63 in 2006, down from 179 in 2005.

Officials found six operations in Jackson County in 2006, the same number as the previous year.

"I think this is great news that reflects a continuing trend," Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston said.

The state and county each have reported steady decreases since a high point in 2001, when 522 labs were found around the state and 20 were found in Jackson County. Especially steep declines were seen in 2005, when state seizures dropped to 179 from 415 the previous year and Jackson County seizures dropped to 6 from 17.

Law enforcement officials around the state credit the decline to changes in state law that make meth ingredients harder to obtain.

Laws enacted in late 2004 put cold pills containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient, in secure locations at stores and required pharmacists to collect information about customers buying such pills. In July 2006, pseudoephedrine-containing pills became prescription-only, and drug companies began using alternative decongestants in over-the-counter medications.

"That was a simple fix," Medford police Lt. Tim George said. "The mom-and-pop labs are mostly gone."

He said authorities found three labs and three dumpsites in Jackson County in 2006. Most of the labs were mobile operations packed in car trunks. Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team was involved in four of the busts.

However, the small, home labs were never major drug sources in Oregon, George and Huddleston said.

"The amount produced by the mom-and-pop labs was never more than 20 percent of the supply and was usually even less," Huddleston said. "Most meth always came in as finished product from out of state."

The key achievements in stopping the small labs are reducing children's exposure to meth-making chemicals in homes and protecting the environment and limiting property damage from the toxic process, George said.

"This didn't stop the flow of meth into the area," he said.

Plenty of the drug is imported as crystal meth from "super labs" in California and Arizona, as well as Mexico and other Latin American countries, authorities said.

"The number of labs here is decreasing, but it's a continuing struggle to stay on top of it," JACNET Commander Lt. Terry Wilson said.

A multifaceted campaign is needed to stop the drug, George said. Successful treatment programs and local efforts to discourage use can trim demand. Federal authorities must demand accountability from governments of nations where large labs operate and from pharmaceutical companies that make and sell huge amounts of pseudoephedrine on the international market with few controls in place, he said.

"I think we are making inroads," George said. "As a nation and a state, we can turn the corner."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or at aburke@mailtribune.com