Special Report: The Costs of Meth on Society

JONESBORO-Meth, it is a huge problem in the State of Arkansas.

But with the number of meth labs withering, the problem is sometimes overshadowed.

In a look at numbers reported from the state crime lab, Craighead and Greene counties are the only ones in region eight with larger numbers of meth lab busts in 2006.

We are told those numbers reflect the presence of the drug task force, which works steadily on these cases.

If you look back to 2004, nearly every county in region eight was suffering from the effects of meth production.

So where is the meth coming from, and just how much are we as taxpayers spending to deal with the problem?

"I would suspect that a good portion of all our criminal activity is related to meth amphetamine abuse or misuse in some way," said Chief Mike Yates with Jonesboro Police.

That's because home cooked meth has gone to the way side, and made way for even stronger imports of the substance.

"We have as much or more crystal meth now than we used to have.  It's just getting here in a different way," said Sheriff Jack McCann of Craighead County.

What hasn't changed is the cost of meth on our communities and the money, we as taxpayers spend fighting it.

"We are spending in the state millions of dollars to arrest and incarcerate these people.  They get out and they are right back at it," said McCann.

When it comes to incarceration, it costs about 45 dollars a day to house someone at the Craighead County jail.  A typical meth case takes about three to six months to make it all the way through court proceedings.  In that time, taxpayers could spend upwards of 8,000 dollars to house one person.

But the cost goes way beyond locking up users.

"You have the overtime cost of the officers, what we have to invest in equipment to combat it.  It's probably one of the more draining aspects of our law enforcement resources," said Yates.

And where there's any drug use, there is crime.

"At least half or probably more of the burglars and thieves are here because they were stealing to get money for drugs," said McCann.

Then there's the human cost.

"How much does Family and Children's Services have to get involved, the treatment centers, the court time.  All of these things lumped in together, it's probably an astronomical cost to the citizens to deal with this problem," said Yates.

This doesn't even include the training and time it takes for officers to deal with the problems.

"We've been at meth lab sites anywhere from an hour to 10 to 15 hours," said Wes Baxter with the 2nd Judicial Task Force.

"You have to consider the officer's time, and the time that they deal with these meth related issues, they are not patrolling your street," said Yates.

"People are going to have to realize that the problem is here.  It's a gigantic problem," said McCann.

So with the meth problem spinning out of control, we asked, what is the solution?

"The taxpayer has got to realize, the old lock em up and throw away the key idea doesn't work.  We've proved that over and over and over."

Sheriff McCann says one program that has helped is the creation of a drug court which requires participants to maintain a job and stay focused.

"If they want help you can.  That's why the drug court works, especially during those first few weeks and months.  They are drug tested several times a week.  That's what it takes, is an intense program," said McCann.

One of the biggest and most notable changes came in 2004 and 2005.  In that year, Arkansas put a law into effect, that required pharmacies to remove pseudophedrines from the shelves and place them behind the counter.  In that same year, the number of meth lab busts went from around 12-hundred to just under 600.

The new Meth Check program is also about to get underway in Craighead, Poinsett, and Cross counties.

This will electronically transmit information from pharmacies to law enforcement within minutes of a purchase of products containing pseudophedrine.

However, the sheriff says the real answer lies outside of law enforcement.

"One of the biggest problems is long-term residential help for anyone who needs or wants treatment.  It's just not there," said McCann.

He says taxpayers need to assess where their dollars are going.

"If we could spend a million dollars and save 500 people, you'd never spend your money any better," said McCann.

However, Chief Yates feels the problem is much bigger than our region and our state.

"Personally, I think this is a problem that's going to have to be addressed at the national level.  As we've transitioned into the local lab manufacturing to the smuggling, if we don't tighten the borders to prevent that influx of meth amphetamine, we're going to continue on the same course we are on right now," said Yates.

No matter what the solution, it's an endless cycle, spiralling out of control.

"It's got to stop somewhere.  You can't incarcerate the world," said McCann.

Area Meth Manufacturing Busts

County 2006 2005 2004
Craighead 17 18 39
Randolph 0 10 13
Independence 1 10 11
Greene 8 1 2
Poinsett 24 7 8