In the early 2000s, rural Mobile County was becoming a hotbed for a crude, homemade stimulant. It was unfamiliar to local law enforcement officials at the time, but methamphetamine would quickly become a top priority in the war on drugs.
“We were dealing with meth lab explosions on a weekly basis,” Sheriff Sam Cochran said. “Volunteer fire departments were putting out fires all over, people were going to the burn units and there were millions of taxpayer dollars used covering those expenses at the hospitals.”
When it arrived from the West Coast, methamphetamine wasn’t like other drugs local law enforcement had seen. It wasn’t trafficked by an organized group of criminals. There was no hierarchy of dealers and distributors to methodically bust. Meth was being made in the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office’s (MCSO) backyard, often by the very people who were using it.
While the fight continues to this day, Cochran said his office was able to stem the tide of meth-makers and precursor suppliers in Mobile County over the past decade by making use of federal funds and attacking the problem in the streets and at the State House.
“We started the meth initiative back in 2007. It spanned several years and had many components to it,” Cochran said. “We really feel like it was very successful, but it was not something that you could put out in a news release or a single news story because it was a long, evolving process that happened over nearly a 10-year period.”
In fact, MCSO claims victory against local meth-makers in a recent publication, “The Meth Initiative: How Mobile Beat the Meth Makers.” Written by former Mobile Press-Register reporter Eddie Curran, the 84-page book explores how MCSO took a proactive approach to fighting meth production in the area by targeting a key ingredient — pseudoephedrine.
In 2007, MCSO received a $450,000 grant through the Department of Justice, and while the Meth Initiative wasn’t limited to that grant, those dollars allowed the office to hire a full-time “meth coordinator.” Cochran found the right man for the job in Joe Bettner, who came aboard in 2008 after stints with the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Bureau.
Meth may have been a new problem, but Bettner had an old set of skills with which to attack it.
“I got in on the tail end of the distillery days here in Alabama with moonshine stills, and I remember as a young ABC agent, what they were looking for were the precursors — the ingredients to make moonshine,” Bettner said. “One of the primary ingredients was sugar, so they were circulating the suppliers and stores to see who was buying all the sugar.”
Bettner said MCSO used the same approach to identify meth cooks by looking for people buying large amounts of pseudoephedrine. However, he said officers also worked to educate store owners about such meth precursors as camping fuel, drain cleaner and lithium batteries.
One of the core functions of the Meth Initiative was to target businesses improperly selling pseudoephedrine. Cochran said there were 94 pharmacies in Mobile County and around 400 other businesses selling pseudoephedrine in 2007, and the task force went to every one of them to educate owners about the law as well as warn them of an upcoming crackdown.
“We knew people were violating the law right and left in all of these mom and pop stores. People were going store to store buying two boxes of pseudoephedrine at a time,” Cochran said. “Within a few months, those stores agreed to quit selling pseudoephedrine because they knew they were going to lose their liquor license if we caught them in violation of the law.”
Since 2005, there have been state and federal laws on the books limiting the quantities of pseudoephedrine that could be sold and requiring retailers to keep it behind the counter and document who was buying it. However, Cochran said, cooks easily worked around the law because separate databases of pseudoephedrine purchases weren’t interconnected.
Through the Meth Initiative, though, Cochran and Bettner set out to change that by collecting the lists of pseudoephedrine purchasers from all the area pharmacies and compiling them into a single database — a long, laborious task performed by deputies and some citizen volunteers.
“This was tens of thousands of names,” Cochran added. “But when they were put into the database, it spit out hundreds of people that had to be manufacturing meth.”
The trouble was, meth cooks were still able to get the pseudoephedrine they needed by having other people — often referred to as “smurfs” — make the purchases for them. According to the book, a smurf could easily flip a $7 box of cold medicine for $50 or more to a meth manufacturer.
Facing those challenges, MCSO and others in law enforcement groups turned their attention to Montgomery in hopes of strengthening state laws governing the sale of pseudoephedrine.
But Cochran said those efforts met strong resistance from pharmaceutical lobbyists who didn’t want the drug to be available by prescription only, as it is in Mississippi and Oregon.
In 2012, law enforcement officials from around the state worked with pharmacy chains on a compromise bill that established a central database for pseudoephedrine purchases, further limiting the amount a single customer can purchase and prohibiting convicted drug offenders from being able to purchase the drug for several years, among other changes.
Cochran said those combined efforts made a big dent in meth locally and across the state.
“Mobile County was the largest purchaser of pseudoephedrine in drugstores — over 17,000 doses a month. Well, that’s dropped to around 5,000 doses per month, so we would tend to infer that more than 12,000 pills a month were being diverted to make methamphetamine,” Cochran said. “The number of meth labs busted per year went from as many as 235 [in 2004] to, as of , there were only five in the whole state of Alabama.”
“The Meth Initiative” book, Cochran said, was produced using a couple thousand dollars of funds seized during local drug cases, and MCSO says it plans to distribute free copies in the hopes other agencies or policymakers might use it as a blueprint in the future.