ST. LOUIS - In suburban mansions and in the Mark Twain National Forest, in cornfields and in cheap motels, Missouri detectives are busting an average of eight makeshift drug labs a day, all of them set up to crank out the inexpensive, extremely addictive powder known as meth.
Last year, for the third year in a row, Missouri led the nation in the number of seizures of ingredients, equipment and hazardous waste related to the production of methamphetamine, the state reported Friday.
Missouri recorded 2,857 raids of meth-related sites. By contrast, California and Iowa - the states with the next-highest totals - each recorded about 1,240 busts last year, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Most of Missouri's meth labs are small mom-and-pop operations, cooking the drug for personal use, not wide distribution. Authorities say the sheer number of seizures in the state is a testament to aggressive detective work. But it's also indicative of how ferociously the methamphetamine epidemic has gripped rural America.
"I'm surprised every day at how many people are using meth," said Jim Willis, the methamphetamine investigator for rural Texas County, in south-central Missouri. "It's a full-time job just to keep the junkies under control."
The drug is especially popular in rural areas because it's cheap and easy to make using ingredients like anhydrous ammonia, a common crop fertilizer that cooks have taken to stealing by the tanker-truckload. Addicts have been known to set up their labs in farm fields, using the lush foliage of mature corn or soybeans as cover. By the time harvest rolls around, they're gone - leaving the field strewn with garbage and sometimes, toxic waste.
Manufacturing the drug takes very little space but produces strong, caustic fumes. That's another reason it's popular in rural areas: Cooks can brew it at a forest campsite or in an abandoned barn, where there are few neighbors to notice and report the burning odors.
Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana report major meth problems in their sparsely populated farm belts.
"Any county in the Midwest will have labs," said Sgt. Tommy Wright, a narcotics investigator for Jefferson County, Mo.
Lately, however, authorities in Missouri have begun making busts in urban centers as well.
A few weeks ago, law enforcement raided an enormous lab in the college town of Springfield, Mo. "Virtually every room of the house had meth cooking activity in it," said Capt. Ron Replogle of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Fifteen months ago, another large lab was uncovered in a 5,400-square-foot suburban home on a golf course in Eureka, Mo.
"It's pretty much spread statewide," Replogle said.
Meth - also known as speed, ice or crank - is a stimulant that can keep users awake for days on end; it can be smoked, snorted, injected or even stirred into a cup of coffee. Addicts report a powerful high. Sheriff's deputies, though, see not euphoria but paranoia in many long-time meth users.
"They're evasive, paranoid, combative. You can never predict what they're going to do," Wright said.
To address what many in the state call a "meth epidemic," Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has proposed moving all the inmates serving time for meth-related crimes to a central prison, where the state could test the effectiveness of various rehab programs. He also wants to tighten criminal penalties for meth cooks and dealers.
Several states have passed harsher laws. Illinois, for instance, no longer allows probation for repeat offenders. Michigan and Wisconsin have made it a felony to illegally dump meth waste. And North Dakota will prosecute anyone who possesses more than 24 grams of a meth ingredient.
More than a dozen states have also expanded their child-abuse laws to allow prosecution of adults who manufacture meth near children. Investigators talk about finding toxic chemicals dumped in bathtubs and explosive brews burbling near cribs. A report released in Iowa last year found that on a typical day, 35 percent of the child-abuse cases referred to state investigators involved methamphetamine.
In another tactic to crack down on the drug, several states have restricted sales of decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth precursor. The small eastern Iowa town of Hazleton, pop. 950, even requires customers buying cold medication to present an ID and sign a log.
In Missouri, law-enforcement agencies have had some success training store clerks to call the police when they spot someone returning again and again to purchase Sudafed, road flares, lithium batteries, drain cleaners or other ingredients known to be used in the production of meth.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.