Tentacles of state's meth problem hard to escape

Number of meth lab busts in 2012 was third highest in the nation

By Emily Campion
Journal & Courier

ROCHESTER, Ind. (AP) — When Brian Johnson of Rochester cooked methamphetamine, he was the king of his own world.

But that world collapsed in 2011 when he found himself in a parking lot, surrounded by police and in possession of chemicals and freshly cooked meth.

He was sentenced to 16 years.

“Honestly, one of the worst things that has happened to me was learning how to cook meth,” Johnson told the Journal & Courier from Putnamville Correctional Facility.

Johnson wasn’t just addicted to the drug — he was hooked on making it. He had plenty of company. In 2012, Indiana State Police reported seizing 1,726 clandestine meth operations, more than double the number in 2007.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration credits Indiana police with a lower number of meth lab busts — 1,429 — in 2012. But that total still was third highest in the nation.

The sharp upswing in meth production and associated criminal activity has Indiana police frustrated, lawmakers scrambling for answers and ordinary Hoosiers concerned for their safety.

According to state police, investigators encountered 372 children in houses or vehicles where meth was being manufactured or precursor chemicals were found in 2012.

Ron Cripe, Tippecanoe County Health Department administrator, provided the Journal & Courier with a list of 51 properties where meth labs or precursor chemicals were seized from 2008 through 2012. In 10 instances, at least one child younger than 18 was present.

“One thing about an active meth lab is that when it’s actually working properly, it leaves a residue on all hard surfaces,” Cripe said. It’s children’s nature to put their hands in their mouth, he said, and when they do, they ingest meth residue.

The health department requires the residence where a meth lab has been found to be cleaned thoroughly — including all surfaces and vents — before anyone can move in.

Police, too, have to watch for exposure. Local police typically call Indiana State Police, which has a special unit to deal with meth labs. Crawford said it costs taxpayers an average of $1,500 for every meth lab cleanup.

The drug has been the catalyst for tighter restrictions on the sale of cold and decongestant medicines that contain the precursors for illicit meth production, including some formulations of Sudafed and Suphedrine.

Restricting the sale of over-the-counter drugs proved effective in reducing meth production temporarily, but meth users found ways to sidestep regulations.

“It’s a continual cat-and-mouse game that we’re playing with meth cooks and dealers and users,” said Detective Lt. Jason Huber of the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office.

The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 placed restrictions on the sale of drugs containing pseudoephedrine and other chemicals from which meth can be derived. The law required that such meth “precursors” be moved behind pharmacy counters and limits on sales.

At first the number of clandestine lab seizures declined. But meth makers quickly circumvented the restrictions. They began to recruit “smurfs” — people who go store to store, buying up pseudoephedrine for $7 to $10 a box and selling it to a meth cook for upward of $50.

Crawford said Indiana law enforcement also uses the National Precursor Log Exchange to keep track of how much consumers are purchasing.

“The clerk scans your license, and if it looks like purchasing that box will put you over the max, it will block the sale,” she said.

But small retailers, such as gas stations, are not part of that network — a loophole that could close if the Indiana Senate passes a bill pending before it.

Johnson sees the challenge of making meth and the high provided by the drug adding up to a seductive game. He’s seen addicts exhibit exemplary behavior in prison so they can get out early and get back in the game.

“They see prison time as a part of the game,” he said. “If you’re going to play, you know you’ll get caught and have to sit out for a while.”

In December, Johnson graduated from a 10-month recovery program and is hoping for a modification of his 16-year sentence. If he doesn’t get it, the earliest he’ll be freed is September 2018.

The federal restriction of cold medicine sales had a profound impact on how addicts got their fix.

“Places went from locally cooked product to the Mexican ice market,” said Tim Mulcahy, principal research assistant of a four-year project studying methamphetamine markets across the United States. Operating without the restrictions U.S. consumers face, Mexico-based producers can buy pseudoephedrine by the barrel and ship out meth in large quantities.

“The response we kept getting from users and dealers was that the (Mexican) product was just better: purer, less adulterated, with a greater high,” Mulcahy said.

But Indiana, he said, is an anomaly.

“Quite frankly, your area is a real conundrum,” Mulcahy said.

He and Johannes Huessy, principal research analyst of the project for the National Opinion Research Center through the University of Chicago, said Indiana meth addicts have an unusually strong commitment to making their own.

“From around where you guys are down to St. Louis area is just very, very entrenched with small-scale meth production,” Huessy said.

Johnson said he enjoyed the clandestine nature of cooking meth. His relationship with meth progressed out of his use of opiates. It was October 2007 when a dealer, short on heroin, offered him meth. Before long he was cooking.

Making meth “was more addictive than the drug for a while, because it’s an adrenaline rush,” Johnson said. “It’s seeing things happen. It’s knowing what’s about to happen.

“It is such an intense feeling that you go into an almost euphoric state when things work out the way that they’re supposed to.”

The son of an addictions counselor, Johnson said he learned how to successfully hide heroin’s hook on him. But meth was different.

“I was a functional addict before, and then I started using meth,” Johnson said. “Your thought process becomes all skewed, and you start making crazy decisions about what you’re going to do for this drug.

“It’s funny to say because, as a heroin addict, I had lines I wouldn’t cross, times I would be home and responsibilities I would live up to. But using meth was kind of like, well, this time I can push that boundary.”

Eventually, his wife found out.

“I tried rehab,” Johnson said. “Once I got out, I relapsed within two weeks. Part of that relapse was catching this case.” The term translates to getting caught and serving time.

It’s a story Huber has heard often. During 16 years with the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office, he’s watched the meth culture worsen.

“What used to be a small group of people has spider-webbed out to large contingencies of people that are making it or at least assisting in some way, shape or form,” Huber said.

Producers don’t have to look far to find what they need: camp fuel, lithium batteries, drain cleaner, decongestant, assorted other chemicals and a 16-ounce plastic bottle. Methods of cooking meth have evolved from fairly bulky setups to portable labs that can fit into a duffel bag, travel bag or even a coat pocket.

“I needed two hours and $50 to make dope, and you didn’t know it,” Johnson said. “It was in my pocket. It’s that insidious.”

The smaller meth “labs” are often disposed of in ditches, woods or empty parking lots. For instance, on Feb. 5, the Indiana State Police Methamphetamine Suppression Section was called in to clean up a meth lab in a picnic cooler left in a White County roadside ditch.

The meth section’s coordinator, Trooper Brock Russell, said this isn’t uncommon, and it’s nearly impossible to identify anyone involved in the crime because there usually are no fingerprints left behind, much less witnesses.

Almost eight years ago, Montana was experiencing a meth surge similar to Indiana’s. Montana ranked in the top five for meth abuse in the country, said Amy Rue, director of the Montana Meth Project.

“We knew from the 1990s it was going to be a big issue,” said Mark Long, chief of the Narcotics Bureau of the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation.

“We realized that we were chasing after it and that we were never going to catch it. We needed to get in front of it,” Long said. So the idea of a public awareness campaign was born.

“But we lacked the resources, lacked the knowledge and lacked the background to go about an advertising blitz,” he said.

Enter Tom Siebel, a business executive and founder of C3 Energy in Redwood, Calif. He donated funds to the Montana Meth Project, which in turn employed award-winning screenwriter and director Darren Aronofsky to produce gritty, 30-second commercials that dramatized the impact of meth addiction, particularly on teens.

In one spot, titled “Sisters,” two teenage girls walk up to three men outside a convenience store. The older girl says, “Hey, guys, you can do anything you want to me for $50.” One of the men motions to the younger girl and says, “Well, what about her?” The older sister says, “Sure.”

As the group is seen crowding inside the convenience store bathroom, a voice says, “This isn’t normal, but on meth, it is.”

The ad campaign galvanized Montanans and encouraged lawmakers to restrict access to precursors. From 133 meth labs in 2003, the state had nine in 2012, one of the lowest totals in the country.

Long said coupling new laws with public awareness made it possible.

“We would have store clerks call and say, ‘Hey, this person just walked out with lighter fluid, batteries and acetone.’

“After arresting them, though, we didn’t just throw them in jail,” Long said. “We made sure they had treatment.”

Indiana lawmakers are poised to approve a law that tightens restrictions on over-the-counter pseudoephedrine sales, increases the penalties for “smurfing,” and bans convicted meth producers from possession of pseudoephedrine and two other precursors for seven years after conviction.

But the measure, Senate Bill 496, doesn’t address treatment needs or public awareness of the problem.

Developed nearly a century ago as an antidote to fatigue, methamphetamine was one of several drugs used to keep pilots alert during World War II. After the war it was used to treat narcolepsy, depression and obesity. But because of its addictive properties and negative side effects, it became a closely regulated substance and went largely underground.

The drug’s popularity faded in the 1980s as cocaine ascended, but in the 1990s it began to show up in garages and basements of home-cookers.

“It’s so cheap, easy to get and highly addictive,” Rue said. “There are as many recipes to cook meth as there are to make chocolate chip cookies.”

Ultimately what makes the drug hard to repress is its effects, said Kipp Scott, Tippecanoe County chief probation officer.

“Humans never do anything without a reason. We are a species that thrives on pleasure. We always want to feel good or better than we feel now.”

Meth is believed to stimulate release of dopamine into areas of the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure, according to a DEA fact sheet. Over time, natural dopamine production drops, fueling the urge for another fix.

The euphoria comes with a cost. Signs of abuse can include violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances and delusions.

Meth abuse also can cause extreme anorexia, memory loss and severe dental problems, the fact sheet states.

In addition, meth use can have serious long-term health effects on the heart, lungs and brain, according to Dr. Nizar El-Khalili, a psychiatrist at Alpine Clinic in Lafayette.

The stimulative effects can increase the heart rate and the risk of heart attack. Addicts also can experience strokes or a pulmonary embolism, which happens when lungs do not receive enough blood, El-Khalili said.

Methamphetamine isn’t a concern only for law enforcement and addicts. More citizens are coming into close contact with the problem, directly or through news reports about fires, arrests and lab seizures.

Stephanie Coopman, 34, who lives in the Rolling Hills subdivision on the south end of Lafayette, in August 2012 came home to find a swarm of police cars at a neighbor’s house two doors down.
The homeowner was charged with meth manufacturing. As police seized what they believed to be a meth lab in the house, they found three children living there.

“It’s horrible,” Coopman said of the meth problem in Tippecanoe County. When asked what law enforcement or legislators could do to make her feel safer, she sounded pessimistic.

“I mean, they’ve tried. They’ve put the main ingredient behind the counter, making pharmacists’ jobs even worse,” she said.

Coopman said when she moved to Rolling Hills she hoped she could relax her guard, but she keeps a close watch over two sons, ages 9 and 13.

“We moved from South Fourth Street, and I believe there was a meth lab two houses down. So when I moved, I thought I was getting away from all that, but nope, I wasn’t,” Coopman said.

“You’re not safe anywhere.”