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Law-enforcement officials say methamphetamine use across the Big Country is as bad as it has ever been, and they also are seeing a resurgence of meth labs.

“The majority of our calls for service involve methamphetamine,” said Billy Schat, commander of the West Central Texas Interlocal Crime Task Force. “I can assure you that each of the 13 counties we serve has a meth problem — no one is exempt.”

The vast majority of drug evidence — about 95 percent — turned over to the Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Abilene is methamphetamine, said Artie Waller, regional manager of the lab.

An online database that tracks the purchase of pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter medication that can be used to make meth, can help law enforcement agencies develop leads on those who purchase the ingredients.

For about the past five years, most of the methamphetamine — known as crystal meth or “ice” — has been coming into the area straight from super labs in Mexico, local authorities said.

But meth labs never went away in this area, Schat said, partially because one of the main ingredients — anhydrous ammonia — can be easily obtained in rural areas.

The most popular method of making meth in this region is “Nazi cook,” in which pseudoephedrine pills are combined with other chemicals, according to Reporter-News archives. The method was used by the Nazis to manufacture the drug during World War II.

Meth also can be produced by the “shake and bake” method, which requires only a two-liter soda bottle, some cold pills and some noxious, but common, household chemicals. A volatile reaction, caused by shaking the mixture, produces the drug, according to a recent Associated Press article.

A federal law passed in 2005 prohibiting the over-the-counter purchase of products containing pseudoephedrine effectively reduced the number of meth labs across the state and the nation — for a while, according to Reporter-News archives.

The total number of incidents involving clandestine meth labs reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration fell from almost 17,400 in 2003 to just 7,347 nationwide in 2006, according to The Associated Press.

But now meth makers are finding ways around the federal law that prohibits anyone from purchasing more than 9 grams — roughly 300 pills — a month. Groups of “smurfers” and “pillagers,” are hitting pharmacies and stores and buying up as much as they can.

“Those are people whose purpose is to travel around to different stores that sell pseudoephedrine and buy the limit (at each store),” Schat said.

Pharmacies and retailers who sell pseudoephedrine are required to log all purchases made for pseudoephedrine.

The stores are supposed to keep track “so if we need to, we can go in and see if someone has been going to multiple locations,” said Tela Mange, public information officer for the DPS in Austin.

A database accessible only to law enforcement officials has been designed to help along the process. Officials at Dallas-based LeadsOnline say that when it comes to meth “cooks” buying up pills, the company’s LeadsOnlabs database can stop them in their tracks.

“They go in groups and may go to one store and then go right across the street to another store,” said Anne Clarrissimeaux, spokeswoman for LeadsOnlabs.

The LeadsOnlabs system is used by several retailers in Abilene. The system tracks how much an individual has purchased every month.

“And if they go to another store, they won’t be able to buy any more,” Clarrissimeaux said. “And it will alert law enforcement when a person ... buys the limit.”

Retailers can sign up to participate in the program. Participants include big-box stores and national chains, but LeadsOnlabs officials declined to name them.

“It is as easy as plugging in a computer,” Clarrissimeaux said.

The Abilene Police Department uses LeadsOnlabs on a limited basis, said Sgt. Van Holdbrook of the narcotics division. No other area agencies were registered with the system.

“The pharmacies that use this are very good about contacting us when they see something suspicious,” Holdbrook said. “That is how we developed some of our forged prescription cases.”

He said that, so far, the system has not netted meth manufacturers.

But even so, the number of area meth busts is on the rise.

Last month, two Merkel residents were arrested and accused of manufacturing methamphetamine in their home, officials at the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Cecil Marion Jarrett, 32, and Cynthia Rene Hubbard, 41, were arrested in September by members of the Taylor County narcotics division. Investigators found three containers of what they believed to be methamphetamine in various stages of the manufacturing process during a search of the residence in the 400 block of Orange Street.

A 34-year-old Merkel man arrested in July on charges of the manufacture, delivery and possession of methamphetamine was arrested again Monday by Taylor County narcotics officers.

Billy Wayne Merchant, who had posted a $111,000 bond in July on drug charges, was found to be in possession of 700 grams of a substance containing methamphetamine earlier this week, officials at the Sheriff’s Office reported.

“Meth is showing a definite surge in popularity,” said officer Billy Spears of the Merkel Police Department. “We have had at least three meth arrests in the last two weeks in Merkel.”

In March, four people were arrested after Nolan County officials and the DPS busted what they called a meth operation on a 296-acre ranch nine miles south of Sweetwater.

Also, a man and a woman were arrested in an Early hotel room Tuesday after officers said they found them in possession of meth. The man was on parole and had cut off a leg monitor, police said. Authorities said both suspects had been smoking meth in front of a 16-month-old boy. Daryl Glenn Reed, 45, and Tanya Jean Miller, 33, were arrested and charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone and endangering a child.

“We got a tip that there was some meth usage going on in a hotel room,” said Sgt. Shawn Dibrell of the Early Police Department. “We found meth in the baby bag next to his toys.”

Over the past several years, multiagency busts in Brown County have netted numerous arrests during sweeps conducted by the Brown County Sheriff’s Office and other area agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and WTICTF.

Schat said the rash of arrests doesn’t necessarily mean that areas such as Merkel and Brown County are hotbeds of meth activity. Some law enforcement agencies are simply more aggressive, he said.

“I don’t think you can pick an area and say one is worse than the other,” Schat said. “If they have an active law enforcement agency that is addressing the problem, they’ll see more arrests there.”

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