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Tennessee Posts Convicted Meth Makers on Web

Times Staff Writer

Tennessee law enforcement officials are trying a new tactic in the battle against methamphetamine: posting the names of people convicted of manufacturing the drug in an online database modeled after sex-offender registries.

The website, called the Methamphetamine Offender Registry, allows Internet users to enter a name or a county, and instantly displays convictions that occurred after March 30.

The state began operating the site last week. It is the first time the state has widely publicized the identity of drug offenders, said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“The whole idea is for people to know if their neighbors are involved in methamphetamine production,” Johnson said. Methamphetamine labs, she said, “were becoming a public threat to the extent that you couldn’t even feel safe in your own neighborhood.”

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In 1995, Montana expanded its public sex-offender registry to include other kinds of violent offenders, including “meth cooks,” but there are no other existing models for Tennessee’s registry, said Blake Harrison of the National Conference of State Legislators.

Tennessee lawmakers proposed the measure in response to pleas from landlords and property owners, who could be bankrupted quickly by the cost of cleaning contaminated properties. Chemicals in the drug are absorbed by concrete and plaster; layers of topsoil must be removed in areas where chemicals were dumped.

New tenants or buyers moving into a property formerly used to make methamphetamine could develop long-term illness from residual chemicals that linger in carpets and drapes.

“I think it’s important to recognize the distinction between methamphetamine and other drugs out there,” Harrison said. “They could blow up your house. If children are present in that house, children are being exposed to toxic hazards. There’s no cocaine registry because people don’t make it in their basement.”

The proposal met with controversy in the state Legislature, with some arguing that the registry unnecessarily stigmatizes people who have served out a prison sentence. But state Rep. Judd Matheny said, “this is an issue that transcends political correctness.”

Matheny, a Republican from Tullahoma, said he expected the registry to face challenges in court, especially once it has been in place long enough to list old violations. He also expects other states to imitate the registry, part of a broad strategy in Tennessee to force “meth cookers” out of the state.

Sex-offender registries were controversial when the idea emerged in 1994 after the rape and murder of a New Jersey girl, 7-year-old Megan Kanka. Civil liberties advocates at the time complained that the registries unfairly punished citizens who had paid their debt to society.

By 2002, all 50 states had some version of the law. That year, the Supreme Court upheld the practice, ruling 6 to 3 that posting photographs of convicts on the Internet did not constitute double punishment as long as it served “to inform the public for its own safety.”

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The registry is one of a cluster of new measures at work in Tennessee, whose rural landscape and history of bootlegging boosted the drug’s spread. In 2004, authorities in Tennessee seized 1,574 makeshift laboratories -- more than in any state other than Missouri -- and took more than 700 children into foster care.

In April, Tennessee followed Oklahoma’s lead by imposing strict regulations on the sales of “precursor chemicals” such as cold medicines, which are no longer available except in pharmacies. That change has helped reduce lab busts by 50% to 60% from the same period last year, Johnson said.

Another change was modeled on a law from Washington state, where authorities began keeping a registry of properties that had been used to manufacture methamphetamine.

It is unclear whether other states will follow Tennessee’s lead.

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Sgt. Jason Grellner, commander of the narcotics unit in Franklin County, Mo., said pharmacists in that state had asked for an online registry of convicted methamphetamine manufacturers to help avoid selling to them. In the hands of professionals, he said, a registry could be “a good tool.”

But he said he had reservations about sharing records of convictions with the general public.

“If you’ve been arrested and convicted and you’ve done your time, you may have done your penance, as it were,” Grellner said.

“The difference between a sex offender and someone involved in illegal narcotics is that you can get out of the illegal narcotics business.”

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