In their ongoing battle against the methamphetamine (meth) plague, state governments use all the technology tools at their disposal to track trends and educate the public about meth's impact.
Tennessee and Minnesota, much like they do with sex offenders, created online registries of names of meth offenders. States also struggle to cope with the toxins left behind when meth labs are busted.
In 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 12,000 domestic meth labs. The residue of the dangerous substances used in the labs could expose families moving into those homes and apartments to long-term health hazards. Complicating matters for states is the fact that there are no official federal regulations on how to clean up a former meth lab.
Some states -- including Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana -- created online registries of meth lab sites to give real estate agents, neighbors and potential homebuyers a centralized place to check on dangerous properties.
Oregon has aggressively addressed meth-related issues, but state officials realize much remains to be done. Although Oregon estimates it shut down about 75 percent of meth labs in the state, the drug killed as many Oregonians as heroin in 2005 -- and more people than cocaine.
The state has begun adding meth lab properties to an online database organized by county.
"These properties have not been cleaned up," stressed Brett Sherry, an environmental health specialist at the Drug Lab Cleanup Program for the state's Department of Human Services. "The goal is to inform the public that these properties are unfit for habitation. If anyone is caught there, they can be arrested for trespassing. So prospective homebuyers, housing code officials, public utility people, the fire department -- anyone with any reason to go to that property -- this listing tells them don't go."
Once a property is cleaned up and inspected by an authorized agent, it gets a certificate of fitness and is removed from the list. Even after a property receives certification, however, a seller must disclose that the property had been used for drug manufacture and cleaned up, Sherry said. There's clear language that a sale is void if this hasn't been disclosed.
Recent state legislation also requires Sherry's office to inform neighbors when a meth lab in their vicinity is busted. "When neighbors see cops arriving in moon suits," he said, "they often don't get the answers they need right away about what is going on."
Anyone living within 300 feet of a meth lab in urban areas, and within a quarter mile in rural settings, is supposed to be notified. Notifying neighbors presented another technical challenge to the three-person staff of the Drug Lab Cleanup Program: How to find all those mailing addresses?
The office initially purchased a subscription to a database of property listings from RealQuest, a property information database. Then in mid-2006, Sherry and his staff found a free tool offered through the Oregon State Library that gathers county assessor data and lets a user mark all the addresses within a certain radius of a property.
Sherry said the notification program has led to people keeping an eye on the abandoned properties and reporting on any activity there. "The more eyes and ears," he said, "the better."
In comparison to other states, Idaho has a fairly small meth lab problem, with only 21 incidents in 2005, according to the DEA. But the state Legislature was determined to address the problem before it worsened. Since the Legislature mandated the creation of an online registry in spring 2006, Idaho's Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program has added only seven properties, but the extensive informational Web site prompts many calls from the public, said Jim Faust, director of the program.
"People might smell something in a hotel room,