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Meth re-emerges on landscape

After a period of relative quiet, methamphetamine production has stirred again in rural southeastern Minnesota.

Mower County "went a long time without any" known meth labs, "but we're starting to see a few," said Austin said Police Chief Brian Krueger.

Still, it isn't a big increase, he said.

But just Thursday, local officers chased a 33-year-old man who was carrying what appeared to be a mobile meth lab in a backpack. The man discarded the backpack during the pursuit; officers recovered it and its contents.

According to court records, the man — who was subsequently arrested — has a history of methamphetamine-related crimes.


New methods

Krueger points to that incident as proof that it remains, and added that within the last week, Mower County deputies had found some abandoned items that pointed to meth production.

"There are new methods being thought of all the time," Krueger said. "They're getting away from the anhydrous ammonia, so they don't need to steal anhydrous; they don't need that element anymore."

The quantities of meth discovered in Mower County, he added, "are quite small, but obviously if they're making it, a lot of times they're going to sell it to make some money. It's just a matter of time before we start seeing it again."

And it's not just in Mower County. Meth labs using differering means of production were discovered in Fillmore, Wabasha and Goodhue counties between December and February, according to Capt. Mark Erickson of the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force.

Anhydrous ammonia, a common element used in making meth, also was stolen during the same three months in Dodge and Winona counties. In Houston County, a man was cited for buying too much cold medicine that contains a key ingredient used in meth production, Erickson said.

"The year prior we hadn't had much at all, and then in three months we had quite a bit of activity," Erickson said. "We got pretty nervous about that, that these guys were going to go out and making meth again."

Meanwhile, federal drug enforcement officials are warning about a resurgence in meth production, which creates toxic byproducts. Production fell sharply in 2005 when state and federal laws were instituted regulating sales of over-the-counter ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.


Meth makers are finding ways around those restrictions, and newer, cruder techniques have also been developed to make small batches of the highly addictive drug, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Nationally, the number of seized meth labs went up 11 percent from 2009 to 2010, the office recently reported to Congress.

Re-emerging in rural areas

Fillmore County Sheriff's Office investigator David Dyke said meth production is more likely to re-emerge in rural areas because it's less noticeable there. There was more meth lab activity in southeastern Minnesota last year than in the previous three to four years, he said.

"Any time you have these signs showing up that it's making a comeback, it's a concern, and I know we are going to go aggressively after that and get it back to no labs for a while," said Dyke, a member of the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force.

The meth operation recently discovered in Fillmore County used a newer production method called "shake and bake" in which meth ingredients are shaken in a larger soda bottle, with no anhydrous ammonia required, Dyke said.

The Goodhue County meth lab was a red phosphorous, also known as Red-P, operation, Erickson said. The phosphorous used in those labs is particularly toxic and flammable, adding to the dangers typically involved in meth production.

"To say something is worse, it's worse," Erickson said.

Twenty-eight meth labs were seized in Minnesota last year, up from 18 labs seized in 2009, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The five meth labs seized by the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force in 2010 was the highest number taken by any of the 24 task forces statewide, according to state statistics.


The number of meth lab seizures in Minnesota last year was still significantly lower than the numbers seen during meth's peak from 1999 to 2005, however. The most activity came in 2004, when 212 labs were seized, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

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