Officials find better way to combat meth labs
State officials are set to scrap a pilot program in a handful of North Dakota counties that aimed to combat methamphetamine labs by requiring farmers to lock up their fertilizer tanks, in large part because they have found a more effective way to crack down on the illegal drug labs.
Anhydrous ammonia fertilizer can be used to make some forms of meth, but any form of the drug requires pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in over-the-counter cold medications, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. Restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine that were put in place in 2005 in North Dakota have contributed to a dramatic drop in law enforcement busts of meth labs — from nearly 300 in 2003 to fewer than 10 in 2010.
"The (tank lock) pilot program was just that — a pilot program back in the days when we were searching for ways to control the local meth labs," Stenehjem said. "We (later) hit on what turned out to be a much better process for controlling the meth labs, and that was cracking down on the one product you need to have — pseudoephedrine.
"The tank locks was a good idea when it started, but this approach is something that just has been working far better," he said.
The pilot program approved by state lawmakers in 2003 required farmers and chemical dealers to put special locks on the valves on mobile tanks of anhydrous ammonia when the tanks were left unattended. The program was implemented in the northwestern counties of Williams and McKenzie, where officials said meth labs were prevalent, with the idea that it could be expanded statewide if it proved successful. The only expansion came in 2005, to the northeastern counties of Walsh, Pembina and Cavalier.
Meth lab busts in Williams and McKenzie counties dropped after the tank locks were required, but only to a level on par with drops seen in other areas of the state where there was no such requirement. Some farmers and chemical dealers in the two affected counties also raised questions of fairness, said Spencer Wagner, fertilizer specialist with the state Agriculture Department.
"It was becoming more of a hindrance to the industry that it was stemming anhydrous thefts," he said.
Law officers had little time to devote to enforcing the requirement anyway, Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said.
"We didn't spend a lot of time on it," he said. "For us to walk out in the field and check if a guy's anhydrous tank was locked, that didn't happen."
Violations of the lock requirement carried a $100 fine for a first offense and fines up to $5,000 for repeated offenses. No violations have been reported and no fines levied in the 11 years of the project, according to the state Insurance Department, which handled enforcement of fertilizer regulations until last year, when the duty shifted to the Agriculture Department.
The Insurance Department, which reimbursed farmers for the cost of the locks from a fund created with Homeland Security money and a contribution from Nodak Mutual Insurance Co., said 355 locks were purchased when the program started in Williams and McKenzie counties. Numbers after the 2005 expansion were not available.
While the program wasn't a financial burden, some farmers said it could be a hassle.
"It was time-consuming," said Ed Mrachek, who lives near Alexander in McKenzie County. He had to lock dozens of tanks during spring fieldwork. "Our biggest problem is we'd lose the key.
"I won't use them (the locks) if I don't need to," Mrachek said. "I mean, geez, they're a pain."
State officials are going through public comments received during a comment period that ended Dec. 18 before proceeding with the repeal of the program, but it is likely to happen.
"We looked at how difficult it was to enforce, we talked to ag officials, we talked to local law enforcement, we took their advice on repealing it altogether," Wagner said.