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Items needed to manufacture methamphetamine are spread out after the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department searched a home in Warsaw in 2011.

Arrests don’t mean meth is going away

Likewise, drop in busts may just indicate ‘cooks’ better at hiding

Methamphetamine busts in 2012 were at an all-time high statewide, but Allen, Kosciusko and Wabash counties all reported a decline in meth lab seizures last year, according to Indiana State Police data.

While all other counties in northeast Indiana showed increases from 2011, police data show the growth was less than in prior years.

But some law enforcement officials warn that fewer arrests in those counties don’t necessarily mean fewer labs or less meth. More likely, producers are becoming better at hiding.

Last year’s 1,726 meth lab seizures statewide set a record, according to state police data. In 2011, there were 1,437 seizures.

The increase is probably due to meth-related education for law enforcement officers and the public, said Sgt. Niki Crawford, commander of the Indiana State Police meth suppression unit.

Crawford said it’s difficult to say whether more labs are being created or just added awareness.

“It’s probably a combination of the two,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with education; … teaching local officers what to look for.”

Noble and Kosciusko counties reported the highest number of meth labs in northeast Indiana, each with 47. Madison County, home to Anderson, led the state with 96 (see chart).

Dangerous drug

When methamphetamine first began to permeate northeast Indiana in the 1990s, meth cooks kept out of sight in rural areas, creating the drug in makeshift labs using anhydrous ammonia, a toxic and volatile farm fertilizer.

But more recently, most meth addicts have switched to the one-pot or shake-and-bake method, which produces less of the drug and doesn’t create as many harmful fumes as a traditional lab, in part because it doesn’t require anhydrous ammonia.

Without the scent of anhydrous ammonia to follow, Fort Wayne police Detective Robert Kirby said, it’s much more difficult to find hidden meth labs. And since meth can be made in single servings, there isn’t as much foot traffic in and out of a cooking area as police see with other drugs such as marijuana or cocaine, he said.

Thus, Fort Wayne officers must rely heavily on tips from the community and repeat offenders, Kirby said.

The one-pot method of making meth, which involves mixing chemicals in a plastic bottle, accounted for 1,344 of meth lab seizures last year, according to state police data.

Statistics also show that the number of arrests related to meth labs increased from 1,420 in 2011 to 1,482 last year.

Meth labs accounted for 25 deaths in Indiana last year, including two children, according to state police data.

Of those deaths, 11 were caused by fires or explosions, three were car crashes, one was a suicide and four were related to medical complications.

The remaining six deaths were from police-action shootings and homicides, though state police data were unclear whether the killings took place where meth was found or whether those killed tested positive for the drug.

A total of 292 Hoosier adults were injured from meth labs, including 83 law enforcement officers, plus 13 children. The injuries included burns from fire and chemicals, exposure to chemical vapors or swallowing toxic chemicals.

Kirby said he has seen an increase in the number of children testing positive for methamphetamine, even if they’re only playing in an area where meth was being made.

Meth vapors can settle into carpet or the interior of vehicles, and children can come into contact with meth simply by crawling or playing in the area, he said.

“It depends on the levels and how long they’ve been in the environment,” he said.

No meth-related deaths for children or adults were reported in Allen County in 2012, Kirby said.

Mixed results

Although Kosciusko County remains in the state’s top 10 list, the number of meth busts declined there last year, according to state police data.

Sgt. Chad Hill, spokesman for the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department, credits law enforcement officers for the aggressive attack on meth throughout the county and local residents for reporting incidents and educating others about the drug.

But Hill also warns that lower numbers aren’t necessarily a cause for celebrating.

“It could be several things, but part of it is that people have taken it on to more of a mobile situation,” Hill said. “I’d like to think the drugs are going away, and I wish it would, but I don’t think it has.”

Hill said officers are finding mobile labs, including those made in vehicles, and trash labs – meth “leftovers” found scattered along Indiana’s roadsides – more often than they are busting meth cooks hiding in cornfields or apartments.

DeKalb County Sheriff Don Lauer warned that statistics can be deceiving – especially because there are many factors involved with the increased presence of meth labs. Last year, DeKalb County doubled its total meth lab busts from 12 to 24.

“It’s easy to assume that going from 12 labs to 24 labs means an increase in meth use or labs,” Lauer said. “I do not believe there has been a large increase in meth labs, but I don’t believe they are decreasing either.”

Lauer said factors such as having a good informant, increased community awareness and more active and better-trained officers can make a big difference. Luck also plays a role.

“In our case, I believe it’s a combination of all,” he said.

Fort Wayne’s Detective Kirby said he doesn’t consider Allen County’s decrease a significant change.

Kirby said the numbers are just scratching the surface on how many meth-related cases police handle annually. Incidents like trash labs don’t make the list, and meth isn’t going away even slightly, Kirby said.

In fact, it’s more than likely spreading, he said.

“I would expect the number of labs to shoot up this year,” Kirby said.

More challenges

Adding to the problem is legislation that limits the number of pseudoephedrine pills people can obtain, Kirby said.

The drug is used in the production of methamphetamine and is tracked through a program called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx. As Hoosiers buy pseudoephedrine from pharmacies, they must show identification and sign a log sheet.

To gain more pills, meth addicts use what Kirby calls a pyramid scheme.

The scheme starts as meth cooks exceed the number of pills they can buy and turn to other people, asking them to buy pseudoephedrine. As more people supply the drug, more start to realize that instead of waiting for a “cook” to make more meth, they can make their own, Kirby said.

“A half-hour trip to (the store) and 45 minutes later, your meth is ready,” he said.

Since NPLEx was implemented in January of last year, the number of lab seizures has increased by more than 22 percent, according to state police data.

The program’s creators say that one of the greatest benefits of the NPLEx program is its ability to link retailers from several states, allowing police to track offenders across state lines.

But what NPLEx doesn’t do is help prevent meth labs, Crawford said.

To avoid being caught, meth cooks use “smurfs” to buy the drug in exchange for money or other drugs, she said.

“(Smurfs) are just marking their calendars for when they can purchase more pseudoephedrine,” she said. “It’s just becoming a larger black market.”

This year, Indiana legislators are considering a bill that would further limit the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be bought.

In February, the bill passed the Senate 44-4 and was referred to the House. On Wednesday, legislators heard testimony on the bill but delayed the vote until this week because of the winter storm.

jcrothers@jg.net

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