Byers testifies about scourge

By: - July 27, 2005 5:47 am

Digital Courier

By JOSH HUMPHRIES Daily Courier Staff Writer

FOREST CITY — A local law enforcement official traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Congressional Subcommittee on Criminal Justice about the rising epidemic of methamphetamine abuse.

Chief Deputy C. Philip Byers of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department testified before the committee on the invitation of Chairman Mark Souder, R- Indiana, about the social and economic concerns that are amplified by meth abuse in small counties in an oversight hearing entitled "Fighting Meth in America’s Heartland: Assessing the Impact on Local Law Enforcement and Child Welfare Agencies." The hearing was broadcast on C-Span 3 at 2 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.

"Methamphetamine addicts and cooks are driving some of Rutherford County’s most costly social problems including domestic violence, child abuse, metal illness, homelessness and the spread of hepatitis and AIDS," said Byers during the hearing. "Rutherford County continues to struggle with social and economic setbacks caused directly methamphetamine addicts and the manufacturers."

Officials have busted 13 meth labs in the county this year and removed more than 20 children from homes where meth was present.

"In 2004 in North Carolina alone, 124 children were removed from homes where methamphetamine labs were in operation, 24 of the children were residents of Rutherford County," said Byers. "2005 has already seen 22 children removed from homes where meth labs were operating in Rutherford County — many of the children removed from meth labs are abused and neglected and will suffer emotional consequences for the remainder of their lives."

Byers said that the number of children present at methamphetamine labs can be expected to continue to increase at an even higher rate.

"Without a doubt, the most innocent victims of the meth epidemic are the children who are exposed to it," said Byers.

Byers recommended that the federal government restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine products in all 50 states.

He said that since Rutherford County is so close to South Carolina that the addicts here will simply travel across the state line to purchase precursor materials.

Byers other recommendations to the subcommittee included:

n Tightening the Mexico border to help prevent meth trafficking from Mexico;

n Addressing the pseudoephedrine black market in Canada and China;

n Longer prison sentences for meth traffickers, meth producers and anyone who involves children in the trade or allows children reside in a home used for meth production;

n Prosecution of meth manufacturers in the federal court system for longer sentences that are beneficial to local law enforcement;

n Continuation of funding interstate drug interdiction teams; and

n Working with mental health providers to develop a better recovery and treatment plan.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Cherryville, said that he was impressed with Byers’ recommendations.

"We have had a number of meetings on the meth problem and I think he came up with the most informative recommendations that we have heard," said McHenry who sits on the subcomittee.

McHenry said he hopes to use Byers’ recommendations to develop legislation.

"Philip Byers did a great job," said McHenry. " I think it was an interesting and informative testimony."

McHenry said that he was impressed that members of the subcommittee including ranking U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D- Maryland, kept coming back to Byers with questions.

Cummings asked Byers about the cost of cleaning up meth labs.

"The only cleanup crews that we have that are certified to go into the labs are in Georgia and Tennessee," said Byers. "So one problem that we run into when we discover a lab — it might be 24 or 48 hours before a chemist can come in and check all the chemicals."

The Drug Enforcement Agency pays for the cost of the cleanup crews, but Byers said that it is sometimes two days that one or more officers are tied up at the scene of the lab.

Cummings then asked Byers how meth has affected other efforts in the work of law enforcement.

Byers said that property crimes, domestic violence, larcenies and simple assaults were markedly higher in 2004 when 43 labs were found in Rutherford County. Byers said that the dramatic increase in crime was a direct result of meth abuse.

Watauga County Sheriff Mark Shook and Police Chief Don Owens of Titusville, Pa., who were also asked to testify at the hearing, agreed with Byers that other crimes rise dramatically with a sharp increase of meth abuse and production.

"They (meth labs) are a local problem, a state problem and now a national problem," said Shook.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, said that the meth problem has gotten totally out of hand.

"The problem is in everybody’s back yard," said Mica. "Our drug-worst-nightmare might come true."

U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-California, said that more than 12,000,000 Americans, over the age of 12, have tried meth at least once.

Methamphetamine is a central nervous stimulate that is made from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. It is stronger and lasts longer than cocaine or crack.

The drug is highly addictive and can be obtained very cheap because a lot of people make it for themselves.

Meth is made in secret, usually makeshift laboratories that may be found in ordinary kitchens, bathrooms, basements or sheds. The process for making, or "cooking," meth is not difficult to learn, so uneducated drug dealers can make the drug without any scientific training.

It has been estimated that meth "cooks" teach 10 other people how to make the drug every year.

A law is currently circulating in Raleigh to make cold medicine purchases more regulated in the state.

The state law would control the sale of key ingredients used to make meth. The law would require that tablet forms of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, commonly found in over-the-counter cold remedies, be sold from behind a pharmacy counter.

Customers would also be required to show a photo ID to purchase cold tablets that contain pseudoephedrine. Purchases would be limited to no more than 9 grams of pseudoephedrine within a 30-day period without a prescription.

Liquid and gel products would not be restricted by the law because it is too difficult to isolate the chemicals used to make meth from those products.

Oklahoma has seen an 80 percent drop in meth labs since enacting a similar law last year.

"Law enforcement officials in other states tell us that cutting off criminals’ access to the key ingredients they need to make meth is the only step that has a real impact on this problem," said State Attorney General Roy Cooper. "Other states are moving ahead. If we don’t push ahead with stricter controls here, North Carolina will find itself behind the curve."

The Criminal Justice Subcommittee has jurisdiction over the domestic and international anti-drug efforts throughout the federal government, and is the authorizing subcommittee for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to Souder’s web site. McHenry, who is the committee co-chairman, recommended Byers to Souder.

Contact Humphries via e-mail at [email protected]

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066