In late March, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) discovered the remnants of several meth labs in the garage of a home in a quiet, gated Cordova community. Three people — 28-year-old Chris Pipkin, 27-year-old Brandon Bentley, and 20-year-old Natalie Reak — were arrested in connection with the bust.
The bust was one of 26 meth lab busts by the MPD so far this year, compared with 59 in all of last year and 33 in 2008. Though methamphetamine was once considered a rural drug, its manufacture and use is on the rise in urban areas such as Memphis.
"We're cracking down. We created a task force last fall, and now we have folks working exclusively on meth every day," said Lt. Mike Shearin with the MPD's Organized Crime Unit.
In early April, District Attorney Bill Gibbons' office began using "vertical" prosecution on all felony meth cases, meaning that one prosecutor is assigned to the case from the arrest to the disposal. The majority of cases in Shelby County use a different prosecutor for different aspects of the proceedings.
"Vertical prosecution increases the likelihood of having a successful outcome. That prosecutor knows that case cold and can make sure every 'i' is dotted and every 't' is crossed," Gibbons said.
Gibbons predicts that by year's end, Shelby County will have had around 200 meth-related indictments.
The MPD's Shearin attributes the increase in meth manufacturing partly to new laws banning the import of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the ingredients used in making meth, into Mexico.
"Mexico banned [ephedrine and pseudoephedrine] in 2007, and, in doing so, the drug cartels haven't been able to make high-quality meth. When the cartels stopped making it, we saw a decrease in supply in the United States," Shearin said. "But then we started noticing last fall that a lot of these addicts have started making it themselves with shake-and-bake or one-pot operations."
The "shake-and-bake" method involves making small batches of meth in two-liter soda bottles, according to Gibbons.
"These little one-pot meth labs are very dangerous," added Shearin. "There are risks of fire and explosion."
The MPD's meth task force is focusing on catching "smurfs," the people who purchase over-the-counter ephedrine products to be used in making meth. A crackdown on "smurfs" in January netted 17 suspects.
Smurfs go from store-to-store purchasing the maximum amount of ephedrine-containing products allowed by law, and although customers are required to sign their name to purchase those products, Shearin said pharmacies don't share the names with other stores. Shearin thinks Tennessee should move to make ephedrine-containing medicines available by prescription only.
"Oregon was the first state to go back to prescription-only with ephedrine, and they've seen a huge decrease in meth labs," Shearin said. "Several years ago, they were seeing upward of 500 meth labs a year. Last year, they had 10."