According to data released yesterday by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, the state saw a record number of methamphetamine lab busts in 2013. Of the 561 “labs” that were taken down by law enforcement — the vast majority being very small operations — 62 were located in North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.

The previous year, there were 460 such busts statewide, 55 of them in those WNC counties.

Relatively new systems for tracking the sale of over-the-counter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make meth, helped cause the spike in busts, Cooper said in a press release. “Investigators now have at their fingertips information that can help them find and stop dangerous meth labs by tracking buys of the drug’s key ingredient,” he said.

Most of the busts, he added, involved small-scale production of the drug. Some 81 percent of the state’s “labs” were operations using what’s known as the “shake and bake” or “one-pot” method — an increasingly common way of making meth with little more than the ingredients and a two-liter plastic bottle.

For the past year, most North Carolina pharmacies have participated in building a 23-state database of pseudoephedrine purchases called the National Precursor Log Exchange, which helps law enforcement track frequent buyers of the drugs used to make meth. The program also helps pharmacies cut off excessive sales of the drugs to individuals. In North Carolina, state law restricts anyone from buying more than two packages of pills containing pseudoephedrine at a time, or more than three packages a month.

The WNC county with the most meth lab busts in 2013 was Watauga, with a total of 16 (up from 14 the prior year). Similarly, Avery County’s meth lab busts went up to 10, from eight the previous year. Lab busts dropped somewhat noticeably in Buncombe (with only one bust in 2013 after six were logged the year before) and in Polk (with four busts, down from 11 in 2012).

While the level of meth lab busts remained relatively low in the mountain area, counties just to the east of WNC continued to have some of the highest levels in the state. Wilkes County, with 50 busts, had the most among North Carolina’s 100 counties in 2013 (though its total was down from 59 reported in 2012). And Catawba County had 27 (up from 26 in 2012).

The meth menace is hardly exclusive to North Carolina, Cooper noted in the release. “Neighboring states continue to struggle with meth labs as well,” it said. “South Carolina saw meth labs rise from 540 in 2012 to 617 in 2013, while Tennessee saw more than 1,500 labs for the fourth year in a row.”

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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