- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri is seeing a startling decline in methamphetamine lab seizures this year, but it isn’t because users are turning away from the drug.

Anti-meth efforts have made it difficult for makers to obtain cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient for homemade meth. Experts say meth remains popular, but users are more inclined to buy imported versions.

There is a benefit, though: The process of making meth can be as dangerous as the drug itself. Fewer labs means safer conditions for those living with or around users, said Jason Grellner, a Franklin County drug officer and president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.

“That has yielded safer conditions for children living in homes where meth was made, safer highways because we don’t have vehicles exploding at 70 mph, and safer conditions for emergency responders,” Grellner said.

Statistics from the Missouri State Highway Patrol show 172 meth lab seizures through September, on pace for around 230 seizures for the year. That’s less than half the 507 seizures in 2015, less than a quarter of the 1,045 seizures in 2014, and just a fraction of the peak years for homemade meth in the mid-2000s.

Abuse of heroin, fentanyl and other drugs has risen in recent years, and narcotics officers say Mexican-made meth is making in-roads even in rural Missouri.

“There has been a national trend that, as it has become more difficult to obtain the key meth component pseudoephedrine, users and dealers have turned to alternatives,” patrol Capt. John Hotz said in a statement.

Missouri earned the unwanted reputation as the nation’s meth capital because it has ranked at or near the top of lab seizures for nearly two decades. The number peaked in 2004 when there were nearly 24,000 seizures nationwide, including more than 2,900 in Missouri. The volatile ingredients often led to explosions in the cooking process, and the toxic aftermath often sickened children and first responders.

To combat meth, laws were implemented requiring pseudoephedrine-containing medications to be sold from behind the counter. By 2007, fewer than 7,000 meth labs were seized across the country.

But makers and users adjusted, developing what became known as “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” meth in which just a couple of pills are mixed in a 2-liter soda bottle for smaller batches. Often made in cars, those concoctions also had a propensity to explode.

The new method led to another spike - 15,000 national meth lab busts in 2010. Missouri had 2,006 lab seizures as recently as 2012.

Some states adopted prescription laws for purchase of pseudoephedrine products. Missouri didn’t, so about 75 local communities instituted their own prescription laws. Grellner credited those laws with the reduction in meth lab seizures over the past four years.

But Ron Fitzwater, CEO of the Missouri Pharmacy Association, cited another anti-meth effort. The National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, tracks and limits pseudoephedrine sales to keep meth makers from purchasing large quantities. NPLEx is used in 33 states and was implemented in Missouri in 2011.

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