ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - The number of methamphetamine labs found in Albuquerque and across the state has dropped dramatically in recent years.
And while Albuquerque-area law enforcement blame the decline on more meth being manufactured in Mexico and smuggled north, New Mexico State Police Chief Robert Shilling said there's another factor at work.
In March 2011, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency announced it would no longer reimburse state and local law enforcement agencies for cleaning up meth labs because of budget cuts and a national decline in the number of meth labs. That decision, coupled with the fact that cleaning up a meth lab is expensive, might have led some agencies to think twice before hunting for meth labs, Shilling said.
"I think that funding issue impacted some proactive initiatives that had been ongoing in the past," Shilling said. "The average clandestine lab that we encountered, I think we looked at a year's worth of data, cost between $5,000 and $8,000 to clean up."
The lack of federal clean-up funds did make state police and the smaller agencies they assist think twice about looking for meth labs, he said.
"We operate on a checkbook and a checking account just like we do at home with our family finances," he said.
A poll of the state's largest law enforcement agencies shows the sharp decline in meth lab investigations started a couple of years ago.
The Albuquerque Police Department went from 40 meth lab investigations in 2010, to 12 in 2011, to just six so far this year. The number of meth lab investigations involving New Mexico State Police dropped from 28 in 2009, to 18 in 2010, to 12 in 2011, to just three so far this year.
Then there's the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office.
"We haven't had a true meth lab in at least about a year, almost a year-and-a-half," said Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Sam White.
The majority of the highly addictive drug is coming from drug labs in Mexico, according to APD and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office. They also said tougher New Mexico restrictions on the sale of ingredients used to make meth are making more of an impact, years after those rules took effect.
The DEA confirmed that the vast majority of methamphetamine is coming up from Mexico and Central America.
"Just as things rise on a bell curve, they hit a peak and come down," said APD Deputy Chief Paul Feist. "It's not a direct spike, it's more of a bell. And we sat at the top of that bell for a good while."
However, BCSO and APD denied that the lack of federal meth lab cleanup funds played a role in the number of meth labs they've busted recently.
"It's not something that we would actually say, ‘No, we're not going to look for meth labs because it's costly or time-consuming,' " White said.
And while federal funding for meth lab clean ups was recently restored, less money is available compared to years past.
State police have secured more state dollars to pay for clean ups, just in case.
"It's a huge impact to a law enforcement budget," Shilling said. "The reality is we've seen a decline, but they're still out there, and they still need to be addressed. "
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