ROCKINGHAM — North Carolina had the fewest number of meth lab responses in this decade, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.
State agents were called out to only 232 clandestine labs in 2017, down from 376 the previous year.
The rise of meth labs — especially those of the one-pot, or “shake-and-bake,” variety — began in 2010, when the SBI had 235 responses. The number of labs continued to rise, peaking at 557 in 2014, and has been on the decline since.
Richmond County, which had the third-highest number of labs in 2015, ended the year in a four-way tie with Anson, Davidson and Cabarrus counties with six labs each.
This year, Onslow County had the highest number of lab responses (21), followed by Rowan (15), Johnston (14), Irredell and Stanly (10), Wayne and Harnett (9), Wake and Sampson (8) and Gaston and Buncombe (7).
All other counties had fewer than six, according to the SBI.
Special Agent Kelly Page told the Daily Journal in an email that she didn’t have any data to explain the decrease.
But in talking to officers around the state, she said, it seems the decline can be attributed to two things:
• the rise in heroin and opioid use;
• an increase in the availability and quality of crystal methamphetamine produced in Mexico and across the U.S.
Both Page and Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons agree on the main reason for the local decline: federal prosecution.
“Those (who) are manufacturing … (say it) is because the possession of meth carries less time than the manufacturing of meth,” Clemmons said, based on interviews with those who have been arrested. “Even though the demand is there, the supply is not as much as it was when you had people who were creating, making their own.
“They’re not wanting to take that chance at getting caught manufacturing, as opposed to possession,” he added. “You’ll find a lot of the other counties are experiencing the same thing.”
Because meth was becoming a growing problem, the sheriff’s office and the SBI initiated a federal meth conspiracy investigation with former U.S. Attorney Ripley Rand’s office in 2014.
“That investigation has led to the federal indictment and arrest of 65 individuals in and around Richmond County who are involved in domestic methamphetamine production,” Page said. “We believe that the federal investigation has made a significant impact on methamphetamine production in that area.”
Clemmons said the U.S. Attorney’s Office has to make the determination whether it will adopt a case from Richmond County based on the evidence.
The reason the sheriff’s office teamed up with feds, Clemmons said, is “because we realized that our state courts are overloaded, overcrowded, the dockets are so large, we only have certain days out of the month and the year we have superior court and there’s not a whole lot that these judges and lawyers can get done.
“So by alliveating the serious offenses and taking them to the federal courts, we’re able to get these cases adjudicated … because our district attorney … he can’t get but so much done,” he added.
By going federal, Clemmons said the cases move in months, rather than years.
Chief Deputy Mark Gulledge also credited the Daily Journal’s coverage of the county’s meth problem, including the federal convictions, for helping hinder meth manufacturing.
“I think the partnership with law enforcement on the local level and federal level, and our partnership with the media outlets, has shown that we’re serious about the drug epidemic that’s gone on,” he said. “I think it’s put out a clear picture that if you make meth, you’re here in Richmond County and you’re caught, you’re going to be punished to the highest level of what’s available through the courts.”
SBI spokesperson Patty McQuillan said Friday that there have been three meth lab busts so far in 2018.
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 or [email protected]