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Drug Manufacture Fed By Farm Theft
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The growing problem of drugs is reaching many farmers who have become targets for theft of a crop fertilizer that is a key ingredient in the manufacture of an illegal drug.
Anhydrous ammonia is a common liquid fertilizer often used on cotton. It is also a necessary chemical in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine, an illegal drug. It is stored in pressurized tanks in fields and is highly corrosive, burning skin if it comes in contact.
Ann Ruscoe, Coahoma County agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said farmers in her area are experiencing a big problem with people stealing the fertilizer and manufacturing the drug.
"They are trespassing and stealing," Ruscoe said. "After taking it from the tank, they often go out into the field or area nearby and finish the manufacturing process."
Ruscoe said farmers are being encouraged to use up their supplies of the ammonia and not leave excess fertilizer in the tank for the next growing season.
"Many of these tanks are in remote areas and even if they tanks are under lock and key, it's hard to keep thieves from getting access to the anhydrous ammonia," Ruscoe said.
Lt. Jerome Hudson, head of the criminal and narcotics investigative divisions for the Tunica County Sheriff's Department, said the crystal meth problem has increased greatly in the past two years. Arkansas has tightened its laws, so suspects cross the Mississippi River bridge at Helena, Ark., and work in Mississippi, where laws are much less strict.
"Most of our suspects have a prior history of convictions on drug charges," Hudson said. "They hit farms that have these ammonium tanks and set up their labs about 200 feet away where they can't be seen at night and where they can see approaching headlights and get away."
A lab scene is a contaminated area capable of fires or explosions. Hudson said once a meth lab is found, the fire department must contain the area and the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics' detoxification unit is brought in from Jackson to secure the site and decontaminate the area.
Not only is the drug manufacture illegal, it is very dangerous. Ruscoe said last year thieves trying to steal the chemical had an accident and the pressurized gas escaped, burning them and about 25 to 30 acres of a cotton field.
"They were extracting it from the tank, and because it was pressurized, they either couldn't cap it back off or couldn't contain it in their tank," Ruscoe said. "The chemical began to release and got on their clothes and burned them.
"They stripped off their clothes and ran to a creek where the sheriff found them buck naked and arrested them," Ruscoe said.
Hudson said Mississippi's laws on crystal methamphetamine are not tough yet, but the state just passed a law against the possession of ammonium along with other drugs, a meth lab or recipe for the drug. Conviction can lead to three to five years in prison, Hudson said.
Crystal meth is very addictive, leading to repeat offenders. Hudson said the drug users are usually the drug manufacturers, who supply the drug dealers.
"It's not one of the bigger problems we face, but it is becoming a larger problem," Hudson said. "We're trying to get more officers and a larger budget because this problem is getting more serious."
Contact: Ann Ruscoe, (662) 624-3070