Pharmacy drugs fueling meth labs

December 20, 2010
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LANSING — Police raid a meth lab in Cadillac. Five people are arrested for running a meth lab in Constantine. Four people die in meth lab explosions in southwest Michigan.

These and other recent events highlight the fact that methamphetamine remains a major problem in Michigan, and officials warn that it’s growing.

“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” said Deputy Jerimiah Abnet of the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department. “At this point we’re just hoping that it doesn’t find its way into the schools.”

The problem is most serious in the southwest part of the state and the Northern Lower Peninsula, but there has been a statewide increase in meth manufacturing and use, according to Detective Lt. Tony Saucedo of the State Police Methamphetamine Investigation Team.

The Southwest is a hotspot for meth because of its proximity to major meth-manufacturing locales in Indiana, Saucedo said. The meth industry began in the western United States and moved eastward over several decades, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The thing that makes methamphetamine unique is that everything that’s used to manufacture the drug, you can buy — and buy legally,” Saucedo said. “Most people have probably half this stuff in their own homes because these items have legitimate uses.”

For example, Saucedo said, meth manufacturers use ingredients from over-the-counter cold medicine and ordinary lawn fertilizer to create the drug.

Another concern is that a new manufacturing method makes it more difficult to detect the labs. Called the one-pot method, the meth is cooked in one container, with less being made at one time.

“In the old days, the labs were bigger and were putting out a more pungent chemical smell, so the neighbors would call and complain,” said Detective Sgt. David Toxopeus of the Cass County Drug Team. “Now that they’ve gone to the one-pot method, the chemicals aren’t as strong, and people aren’t reporting it to us.”

The problem is on the rise in Northern Michigan, as well, said Grand Traverse County-based Detective Lt. Daniel King of the State Police.

“Gaylord, Traverse City, Reed City, Cadillac — the labs are all over Northern Michigan,” King said.

He said meth activity has increased in the last year, in particular, and attributed it to Southwest Michigan residents moving north, the availability of recipes on the Internet and the rural nature of the region.

Toxopeus said educating the public on what to look for, — including the combination and placement of ingredients — is a vital factor in discovering meth labs.

“For every 10 labs we get, nine of them are initiated by citizens complaining rather than us detecting them,” Toxopeus said. “It seems like every time we speak to a group, within a month someone that heard us is calling about suspicious activity in their neighborhood.”

A 2005 law attempted to alleviate the problem by requiring that drugs containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine be stored behind a pharmacy counter and sold in a limited amount to individual buyers, but Toxopeus said the requirement hasn’t had much impact. 

“They’re just adapting to that,” he said of meth makers. “They’re having their friends buy it; they’re going from store to store. We can keep changing the laws, but they’re just going to figure out a way to go around it.”

Saucedo suggested that making ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-based drugs available only by prescription could slow the manufacture of meth. Oregon and Mississippi have such laws, he said. Although it’s too early to tell if Mississippi’s law has had a significant effect, the number of meth labs in Oregon has dropped noticeably, he added.

“They’ve seen their labs go from about 500 or 600 a year to 10 for the whole state last year,” Saucedo said. “Did that get rid of methamphetamine in Oregon? No. They still get meth shipped in, but you can deal with that a lot more easily that you can deal with labs.”

Methamphetamines pose a big risk to children in Michigan’s child welfare system, said Elizabeth O’Dell, executive director of Community Mental Health Services of St. Joseph County.

The Department of Human Services receives petitions from social workers requesting that either children or their guardians be removed from their homes, and O’Dell said the percentage of those cases that are meth-related is steadily increasing.

“Three years ago, it was 36 percent,” O’Dell said. “Two years ago, it was 50 percent. Last year, 56 percent of the kids came into DHS care because of meth.”

O’Dell called meth an epidemic in public health. She expressed particular concern about a recent bust of a meth lab at a day care center in Colon, which resulted in the shutdown of the center.

The St. Joseph’s Sheriff Department’s Abnet said another serious concern is financial: There is little money available to finance meth lab cleanups.

“The future is not looking pretty,” Abnet added. “And unless we can get some money and some help, I don’t see it getting any better.”

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