(LONDON, Ky.) -- Methamphetamine abuse is exploding across rural America now that cooks with the right elements can set up shop virtually anywhere, and in Kentucky, meth labs have nearly tripled in the past three years.
Fighting methamphetamine production has become an all-consuming battle for deputy director Dan Smoot, who leads a taskforce in London, Ky., called Operation Unite. ABC's Nightline was granted access, cameras rolling, as a team of 30 police officers, most of whom were undercover and in unmarked vehicles, set out at 9 a.m. one morning, targeting local drug stores, including a Walgreens, a CVS and a Wal-Mart.
"The one single ingredient they must have to produce methamphetamine is pseudoephedrine," Smoot said.
Pseudoephedrine is found in over-the-counter cold medicines such as Sudafed. While these pills may provide relief to cold sufferers, to criminals who are in the business of making meth, these pills are gold. Meth-makers legally buy as much of the raw product as they can at local pharmacies and drug stores.
A federal law designed to crack down on methamphetamine abuse sets a hard limit on pseudoephedrine: No more than nine grams, or about seven packs, per customer each month. But to get around that limit, which is electronically tracked by drug stores in certain states, meth users will team up so that each can buy the maximum at once. Smoot explained that it's a practice known as "smurfing," named after the little blue cartoon characters, Smurfs, who are small, but mighty as a team.
Inside a Walgreens, an undercover cop tracked three women who arrived together in a red Monte Carlo. The officer reported back to Smoot that all three purchased pseudoephedrine and he believes one of them shoplifted before they crowded into the women's bathroom.
When confronted, the three women's stories didn't add up. One of them was arrested on drug charges and another was arrested for the possession of meth and driving under the influence, but her case was eventually dismissed. The third woman in the car was not charged, but police arrested a fourth woman at a trailer park residence for outstanding warrants.
"The classic case of 'smurfing,'" Smoot said. "The one lady had recruited two of the younger girls to go around to the pharmacies and purchase pseudo, and that's what we saw in the store. She gave the one girl money."
Smoot added that this sort of situation is an "everyday occurrence" in Kentucky.
"We're now number three in the United States of America for production," he said.
One new and difficult problem for police is the portable one-pot meth labs that the task force called "shake and bakes." Joel Cunigan, an Operation Unite taskforce detective, said this method is so popular because the products needed to quickly make a small batch of meth are readily available with a few visits to local stores.
By mid-afternoon, the task force found that the Walgreens pharmacy was so crowded with people buying cold medicines with psuedoephedrine that the store actually sold out. Smoot speculated that about 70 percent of the people legally purchasing the pseudoephedrine that day would probably use it to illegally manufacture methamphetamine.
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