JEFFERSON CITY - Alarmed by the spread of methamphetamines, some lawmakers and police are pushing for harsher penalties aimed at sources of the illegal drug.
"You can't swing a dead cat in Missouri without hitting a methamphetamine lab," said Aaron Harrison, a state trooper who patrols several counties near Cape Girardeau.
Once limited to Kansas City and Southwest Missouri, methamphetamines have spread across the state, prompting law enforcement throughout Missouri to say weak laws limit their ability to tackle the problem.
Lawmakers are now responding to those concerns with proposals that would establish some of the toughest meth laws in the country.
"They all need more help," said Rep. Peter Meyers, R-Sikeston. "Meth is more serious than marijuana."
Methamphetamine is very similar to crack cocaine. The llegal drug is concocted in small labs from over-the-counter medicine and widely available chemicals. Addicts who take the drug are energized for hours and some are known to stay awake for weeks at a time.
Producers tend to be small-time operators who make the drug for themselves and friends.
"For every one that we take out, there are two people who want to take their place," Harrison said, claiming current law is insufficient to deal with the problem. "The punishment isn't fitting the crime."
The Highway Patrol reported seizing 589 meth labs last year, resulting in the arrest of more than 600 people. Local police busted many more.
Harrison said convicted meth producers usually only a slap on the wrist, with many going free on bail even before he finishes his paperwork.
Frustrated, Harrison lobbied Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, to sponsor legislation that would impose minimum sentences for those convicted of producing methamphetamine. Meyers is sponsoring similar legislation in the House.
Kinder's bill would also toughen penalties for theft of anhydrous ammonia, the highly explosive liquid fertilizer that serves as a key ingredient of the drug. It would also become illegal to possess anhydrous ammonia in an unapproved container, thereby giving law enforcement greater power to arrest potential producers.
"To avoid being caught, you'll find some of these people actually driving along adding the anhydrous with the windows open," said Tim Anderson, a prosecutor in the state Attorney General's Office. "That's not a good recipe for the highway."
However, some remain unconvinced that the proposed changes will have any effect on the thefts.
"They're going to steal it anyway," said Bob Stuenkel, a fertilizer dealer whose anhydrous tanks are broken into about once every week. "They wouldn't be doing it if they had any conscience at all."
Lawmakers first addressed meth several years ago, with major changes going into effect in 1998. The law was tightened for trafficking and manufacture, special drug courts were set up and a system for disposing of chemicals left over from meth labs was established.
Yet, Anderson said, plenty of people continue to produce meth.
"Even though law enforcement has hit them hard and hit them well, there's still a number of people involved, and those have not really declined," he said.
Kinder said he hopes to get support for the anhydrous ammonia provisions, but said there is significant opposition within the upper chamber to minimum sentences. Although no groups testified against the provisions, several organizations have come out against minimum sentencing, including the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kinder's proposal awaits a vote by the full Senate.
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