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New worries about meth trends

After a decline in the number of labs in the US, amounts of the addictive drug have gone up.

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Sergeant Higginbotham says smurfing is particularly effective because different companies' databases aren't usually linked – Walgreen's can't tell if someone just finished buying suspicious amounts of ephedrine at Target. And the profit is enormous: local smurfers are paid $50 for a $9 box of medication.

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Sparsely populated Jefferson County hasn't experienced the same decline in lab seizures as other areas. Two hundred facilities were uncovered there in 2008. And while that's 50 fewer than a few years ago, it's still a very large number compared with the 359 seizures in all of Illinois in the same year.

One factor might be that other agencies – less sensitive to the problem of smurfing than Jefferson County, didn't put the same resources into searching. "A lot of people weren't looking in the right places," Higginbotham says.

But it's not just small meth operations that are more active. Some larger producers south of the US border began to relocate here following the severe import restrictions announced by Mexico in 2007. Labs run by Mexican drug traffickers have trickled back into California's Central Valley, a mostly rural region that pumps large batches of methamphetamine to major cities for distribution.

"We're not surprised because we always realized it was a possibility it would return to this area," says Gordon Taylor, special agent in charge of the DEA field office in Fresno, Calif.

The valley hasn't seen more "superlabs," or facilities with capacities of at least 10 pounds per cooking cycle, Mr. Taylor says. Five such labs were seized in 2007, compared with four in 2008. But at one superlab bust in February, agents discovered evidence of smurfing on a very large scale. Abundant packaging from different types and brands of cold medication dotted a Stevenson, Calif., house where glassware suggested a remarkable 44 pounds of methamphetamine were churned out every day or two.

The most notable increase in the drug's production occurred among medium-sized labs producing 2 to 9 pounds per cooking cycle, Taylor says. Agents in his area found four in 2008 after turning up none in 2007.

The NDIC report projects these trends – more and larger-scale smurfing operations, more small-time labs, and more labs moving north from Mexico – to continue pushing up meth production. It also warns of Mexican producers circumventing import restrictions by smuggling ingredients from legal sources in South America. And it notes that an increasing amount of Ecstasy, another illegal stimulant, is being made with meth to make it more addictive.