KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The law catches the cooks but can't stop them -- not so far.
Enhanced electronic tracking of ingredients at the pharmacy counter has made barely a dent in Tennessee's methamphetamine production, according to a study released Thursday by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office.
The findings echo repeated complaints and criticism of the system by law-enforcement officers statewide.
"We do appreciate the comptroller's efforts and their hard work," said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force. "They didn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but not everybody lives it like we do every day. The facts are there and speak for themselves."
The private company that manages the tracking system says that's not a fair complaint.
"That's a loaded statement in that it assumes tracking is supposed to cure meth use and production," said Jim Acquisto, vice president of governmental affairs for technology provider Appriss. "You already had the labs, the addicts and these people who are criminals. We just showed you where they are."
Tennessee continually ranks at or near the top of the list for the most meth labs found in any state. Three years ago, the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force counted an all-time high of 2,082 labs reported by police across the state.
Last year saw almost as many labs reported. Preliminary figures place the projected 2012 total at 1,808 labs, Farmer said.
"Methamphetamine production in small labs is prevalent in Tennessee despite the implementation of pharmacy precursor sales limitations and an enhanced electronic tracking system," the report notes, without recommending a further solution.
Addicts make meth, a stimulant, by using household chemicals such as drain cleaner and lantern fuel to break down pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in some popular cold and sinus pills. The process creates toxic waste and often leads to fire and explosions.
Tennessee has tracked pseudoephedrine sales since 2005 by limiting sales to pharmacies, capping the amount of pseudoephedrine that consumers legally can buy at one time and requiring all buyers to show identification and sign a log. That measure makes finding meth cooks easier but hasn't stopped production.
Rings of meth users known as "smurfs" band together to hit pharmacies en masse and buy up as much pseudoephedrine as possible, often with pockets full of fake IDs. A newer method, known as the "one-pot" or "shake and bake" recipe, requires fewer ingredients than older formulas and equipment no more complicated than a single bottle.
Two states -- Oregon and Mississippi -- have made pseudoephedrine available by prescription only, as have more than 70 local governments in Missouri. The report notes meth production has plummeted in those areas but stops short of recommending that step for Tennessee.
Police agencies across the state, including the meth task force, called for such legislation in 2011, but legislators and Gov. Bill Haslam settled on increased electronic tracking through an interstate, privately managed system as a compromise.
"Our position has not changed," said Farmer, the meth task force director.
The system, known as MethCheck or the National Precursor Log Exchange, allows real-time tracking of pseudoephedrine sales by police and pharmacists but hasn't made a noticeable difference in the problem, the report concludes. Twenty-five states participate in the database, funded by the pharmaceutical companies that produce pseudoephedrine.
"We're doing what we're supposed to be doing," said Acquisto, the company spokesman.
The fight against meth labs could become even more expensive, with the federal grant that pays for the meth task force and its support for local law enforcement set to expire at year's end. Police already have reported finding 59 labs in the first eight days of this year, Farmer said.
METH IN TENNESSEE
BY THE NUMBERS
* 2,082: Meth labs reported statewide in 2010
* 1,808 (preliminary): Meth labs reported statewide in 2012
* 722: Children taken into state custody because of meth during 2010-11
* 1,365* Number of inmates serving meth-related felony sentences in jails or prisons
* 479* Number of meth-related felons on parole
* 2,572* Number of meth-related felons on probation
*As of January 2012; does not include misdemeanor offenders or those awaiting trial
Source: Tennessee comptroller's office; Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force