JEFFERSON CITY, MO. Law enforcement agencies don't often get calls from the public about suspicious activities surrounding methamphetamine because, they say, people often don't know what to watch for.
But Missouri Sheriffs' Assn. executive director James Vermeersch hopes that will change under a program that started in Franklin County and soon could expand statewide.
Operation CHEM, short for Companies Helping Eliminate Meth, trains retailers about how the everyday products they sell -- from Sudafed cold tablets to coffee filters or batteries -- can be used in the manufacture of the illegal drug methamphetamine.
And if retail clerks notice customers regularly stocking up on the products that go into making meth, they're encouraged to call police and give them customers' names, addresses, vehicle license plate numbers and physical descriptions.
As it is, "the citizen doesn't know" much about methamphetamine and "the clerk behind the counter hasn't been educated that this activity would be suspicious," Vermeersch said.
For two straight years, Missouri has led the nation in the number of meth lab raids.
Last year, more than one out of every six meth labs in the country were found in Missouri, federal and state figures showed. That's a roughly 28 percent increase over 2001 numbers and widens the gap between Missouri and the rest of the nation.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and law enforcement officials in Franklin County met in February about the meth problem, and that meeting led Hulshof to include $300,000 in a federal spending bill to expand the county program to the rest of the state. The bill already has passed the House and awaits final approval by the U.S. Senate next month.
The Franklin County sheriff's office started the program about a year ago.
|These are some of the everyday items used to make methamphetamine:¢ Anhydrous ammonia¢ Acetone¢ Aluminum foil¢ Brake cleaner¢ Camping fuel¢ Coffee filters¢ Denatured alcohol¢ Drain cleaner¢ Engine starter fluid¢ Ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, ingredients in many cold remedies¢ Funnels¢ Gas additives¢ Iodine¢ Lithium batteries¢ Lye¢ Matches¢ Paint thinner¢ Propane tanks¢ Rubbing alcohol¢ Sodium hydroxide¢ Table or rock salt-- Information provided by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.|
The effort is the latest example of ways authorities are trying to stop the drug's spread. A new state law restricts the sale of some common cold products. Along with anti-theft measures, the law limits shoppers to buying two packages, or 6 grams, of pseudoephedrine at one time.
Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in many over-the-counter decongestants, including Sudafed.
Already, Franklin County has seen a drop in the number of meth labs, and Cpl. Jason Grellner, who developed the CHEM program for the sheriff's office, credits the education effort.
Statewide, last year saw 2,743 meth lab investigations, and Capt. Ron Replogle, director of the State Highway Patrol's Division of Drug and Crime Control, said that number could climb this year to nearly 3,000.
Jasper County in southwest Missouri led the state with 178 meth raids and seizures last year. Franklin County ranked second with 152, up from 67 in 2001, and Jefferson County was third with 148.
This year, Franklin County's count is expected to drop to 100 to 115, Grellner said.
"The success they've seen in Franklin County is what we want to see statewide," Replogle said.
Grellner said officers didn't want clerks or store owners to act like citizen cops, but rather to be eyes and ears for law enforcement, and leave the investigating to them.
"We're not asking retailers in any way to be a vigilante force," he said. "All we're looking for is information they have."
Hulshof, R-Mo., said the program was innovative.
"We focus sometimes with blinders that this is a law enforcement issue. No, really this is a societal problem," he said. "If we can keep making progress here in the state of Missouri, then I can see this being taken to other states that have a similar challenge with methamphetamine."