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Independence's rap as Meth City USA needs tweaking

It's time to rethink Independence's reputation.



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David Fry is the current Drug Court commissioner. His gray hair falls below his collar, and he speaks with a gentle voice, even when he's calling out the names on his docket.

On Tuesday afternoons, Fry monitors the progress of Drug Court participants in a beige-paneled room on the first floor of the county courthouse in Independence. Fry sits behind a bench that judges use to orient the potential jurors who arrive at the beginning of each week.

Most of the case files that Fry opens on this day indicate compliance with the program. "Keep up the good work," Fry tells one offender.

But he has seen enough drug-test results to know when something is amiss. He softly questions one young man about the diluted state of his urine. "My faith in humanity is gone," Fry says. "Not that I don't love everybody. But my faith is gone."

Two men leave the courtroom in handcuffs. One had thrown a punch at his mother. The other, a middle-aged man with a ponytail and sunken cheeks, had tested positive for methamphetamine a sixth time. "You keep doing meth," Fry matter-of-factly tells him.

When court adjourns, Fry expresses sympathy for the jail-bound meth user, who was at least disciplined enough to report for testing. To Fry, the string of positives is not defiance but a cry for help.

Fry says that when a bed opens up, he will move the meth addict out of jail and into a facility better equipped to address his problem. "I'm not wearing him out with treatment yet," he says.

Oliver "Glenn" Boyer has been the sheriff of Jefferson County, Missouri, since 1993. He has supervised the dismantling of hundreds of meth labs

"Unfortunately, when you take down a lab, there's three things you normally find," Boyer tells The Pitch. "You find guns. You find kids. And you find dogs."

South of St. Louis, Jefferson County reports more meth-lab "incidents" — a catchall term that includes not just functioning labs but also glassware caches and dump sites — than any other county in Missouri.

Boyer has 10 people working on nothing but labs. He had 15 dedicated meth cops before budget cuts took a toll. Still, even with a reduced force, Jefferson County reported 228 lab incidents in 2010, more than twice the next most meth-inundated county in Missouri.

The raw numbers tell an incomplete story. Nick Reding, the St. Louis-based author of Methland, a book about meth's grip on a small Iowa town, says the term "incident" has a variety of meanings.

"The word is out now that lab incidents do not equal a lab producing large amounts of meth," Reding says. "It can be anything, from a kid who makes a quarter ounce of it — that's considered a 'lab,' according to the police."

In any case, Boyer would like to get out of the lab-busting business. He and other law-­enforcement officials in his area support legislation that would require a prescription to obtain pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant used in popular cold and allergy medicines. Cookers use pseudoephedrine to make meth. One process called "shake and bake" requires little more than a handful of pills, a 2-liter soda bottle and some household chemicals.

"The only reasonable thing to do is to make cold medicine available by prescription only," Reding says.

In 2006, Congress passed a law that moved pseudoephedrine products from the aisles to behind the pharmacy counters. Still, the drug is available without a prescription, and Boyer says that needs to change. Young people, he says, go into drugstores, buy a $5 package of pseudoephedrine and sell it to cooks for $40 or $50.

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