A few years ago, before opioids became the dominant drug concern, the focus was on problems created by meth – crime, violence and the proliferation of crude, dangerous “labs” that required only pseudoephedrine and a few other easily obtained ingredients. Sometimes, the lab was in a house or apartment; sometimes it was a two-liter soda bottle being shaken as an abuser carried it down the street. Some of these labs blew up, killing and injuring users or bystanders, sometimes leaving children contaminated and homeless.
For several years, Indiana led the nation in meth labs raided, and Allen, DeKalb and Noble were among the counties with the most acute problems.
Led by Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, lawmakers in 2016 wrestled with how to prevent meth makers from getting pseudoephedrine without denying the widely used decongestant to those who need it. Smaltz originally proposed requiring cold sufferers to obtain a prescription for pseudoephedrine-containing drugs, but many feared that would create logjams in doctors' offices.
In the end, Smaltz and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle arrived at an imperfect step everyone seemed able to live with: the legislature decided to simply give pharmacists more discretion over sales of Sudafed and other pseuodoephedrine-containing products. Those regulations, combined with earlier state and federal regulations, made it much harder for drugmakers to go from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of ingredients.
“The results,” Smaltz said in an interview Tuesday, “have been remarkable.”
In 2015, he said, there were 37 meth labs found in DeKalb County. In 2017, that number was 10. Noble County's numbers went from 70 to 15 during the same period, and Allen County went from 59 to 15. Even more meaningful to Smaltz is that there were 49 children removed from meth-contaminated homes during 2017. “That's a lot,” he said. “But in 2015 the number was 291.”
“I think the restrictions on Sudafed have had an impact,” Fort Wayne Police Department Capt. Kevin Hunter said in a recent email. “We've only had six meth labs this year so far.” In 2014, FWPD investigated 64 meth labs, said Hunter, who heads the department's drug-fighting operations.
That's clearly progress. But no one was under the illusion that making pseudoephedrine harder to access would end the meth threat. In some parts of the country, an abundance of crystal meth has begun to rival the opioid problem. “Meth,” the New York Times reported earlier this year, “has returned with a vengeance.”
“What we are seeing is a huge increase in crystal meth from Mexico,” Hunter wrote. “It's very cheap and easy to get right now, which I think is also impacting our low number of meth labs.” FWPD seized a record 2,156.2 grams of meth last year; so far this year, the department has seized 1,353 grams.
Crystal meth is made in clandestine laboratories and smuggled into the United States, usually hidden in motor vehicles, according to a DEA Strategic Intelligence report. It can be made using another substance, phenyl-2-propanone, instead of pseudoephedrine.
So far, the opioid crisis is proving much harder to contain.
But meth addiction has its own set of potentially lethal horrors, and it is even more difficult to treat. “Meth has a 7 percent recovery rate,” Hunter said.
A resurgence of meth could add more deaths and shattered families and put further strain on jails, treatment facilities and other resources. Even as they continue to deal with the devastation wrought by opioids, first responders and the law enforcement, judicial and medical communities may have to gird to meet yet another crisis.
“What worries me,” Hunter said, “is the next drug trend we're not prepared for.”