Police seized more methamphetamine labs in St. Joseph County last year than in 2012, mirroring a statewide trend, but officials said the local increase in seizures may have resulted more from vigilant police work than wider drug use.
In St. Joseph County, meth lab seizures increased by about 33 percent, from 30 in 2012 to a record-high total of 40 in 2013, according to recently released Indiana State Police statistics.
South Bend police Lt. David Ryans, commander of the countywide Metro Special Operations Section -- a unit that conducts drug raids in South Bend, Mishawaka and unincorporated parts of the county -- said officers uncovered more labs because his team is better trained than ever to spot meth operations.
“I think as the meth labs have popped up in our county, we’ve become better at noticing some of the components to it,” Ryans said. “I don’t think that it’s prevalent in our area; it’s just we’re finding more because we’re better trained at it.”
Across the state, police seized more than 1,800 labs in 2013 compared with 1,726 in 2012 -- an increase that likely made Indiana the national leader in meth lab raids, state police reported.
But, Ryans said, arrests for methamphetamine possession in St. Joseph County have increased little, if at all, despite the number of labs local narcotics officers have seized, suggesting the rise in lab seizures may not be linked to a greater amount of meth on the streets.
State police Sgt. Niki Crawford of the agency’s Meth Suppression Section said the South Bend area had a “significant” increase in seized labs, but she agreed the county’s narcotics unit is better trained and equipped than most local police to conduct meth raids.
Most local police departments throughout Indiana call state police specialists to help dispose of toxic meth labs, but St. Joseph County’s Metro Special Operations Section has three officers with the same expertise, making it the only local unit trained and equipped to handle the labs itself, Crawford said.
“South Bend Police Department and their Metro Special Operations unit, they are the only other agency in the state of Indiana that can process labs safely without the state police,” she said. “Anytime you have the opportunity to get out and train law enforcement, your results are going to be better investigations, so a piece of the rise in meth lab seizures has to be attributed to good police work being done.”
Of the 40 meth labs seized in St. Joseph County last year, local narcotics officers processed 27 and state police handled the rest, according to the statistics.
‘Smurfs’ and cooks
Crawford blamed the statewide increase on ever-widening groups of “smurfs” -- people who buy pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in homemade meth, in large quantities and deliver it to the “cooks” who manufacture the highly addictive drug. Instead of money, the smurfs often receive a share of the finished product as payment, which breeds more addicts, she said.
“What we’re seeing is the smurf groups have grown exponentially,” Crawford said. “The boxes of pseudoephedrine are currency. It creates a whole new crop of addicts you have to deal with.”
Unlike the complex operations depicted in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” small “one-pot” meth labs, which utilize plastic soda or water bottles, have driven the recent statewide increase in meth production, accounting for about 87 percent of the seized labs. Police say most of the meth is made by addicts for personal use, rather than dealt for profit.
When local narcotics officers raid a suspected meth house, Ryans said, they often find boxes upon boxes of pseudoephedrine, which is sold under the label Sudafed or assorted generic varieties.
“Usually we’ll find it in the trash; there’s times there’s hundreds of boxes of pseudoephedrine,” Ryans said.
The St. Joseph County Health Department condemned 12 meth houses in 2012 and 10 last year, according to Marc Nelson, the department’s environmental health director.
While St. Joseph County reported more meth lab seizures in 2013, at least two northern Indiana counties that had long been meth hotbeds saw a decrease in the number of labs that were seized.
Marshall County, which was among the state’s top 10 counties for meth lab seizures from 2009 through 2012, saw a decrease to 33 labs and fell out of the top 10 in 2013. Kosciusko County, meanwhile, saw a 30 percent decrease. But police in those counties said it was difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the decline in meth lab seizures.
Marshall County Sheriff Tom Chamberlin attributed the decline partly to the arrests and convictions of a group of meth cooks, with some of the convictions leading to 10- to 15-year prison sentences, over the past few years.
“The first thing I would attribute that to is our main cooks had been arrested and were in jail, so they’re just out of commission,” Chamberlin said. “I would say that’s our largest contribution -- our investigating officers getting them off the street.”
Kosciusko County police Capt. Aaron Roven-stine said a number of factors could contribute to the apparent decline in meth labs. He pointed to crackdowns by the local police task force, community awareness campaigns about the destructive effects of meth and the possibility that users are buying imported product instead of making it themselves.
Time will tell
While the decrease is encouraging, Rovenstine said, it may take some time to determine if the statistics represent long-term progress or a simple fluke.
“I guess we’ll have to wait down the line to see if it’s an outlier or if we’ve made a dent in it,” he said. “Like any stats, you’ve got to kind of let it play out for a few years.”
State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would seek to curb the homemade meth problem by allowing local governments to require a prescription to buy pseudoephedrine. In 2005, the state enacted a law that, among other restrictions, limited the amount of cold medicine a person can buy in a given week, required stores without pharmacies to keep pseudoephedrine in a locked case or behind a counter, and required customers to show a valid ID and sign a log to buy the medicine.
Despite the current restrictions, the number of meth labs seized across Indiana has risen each of the past seven years, as groups of smurfs circumvent the law, according to state police.
Some area police say tighter restrictions on pseudoephedrine would help cut down on homemade labs and meth houses, but addicts will still find ways to get their hands on the drug, with Mexican cartels possibly moving the product into the state to satisfy the demand.
“What that will do is force the organized drug gangs to continue to supply that product,” Chamberlin said. “You’re going to have less of that individual manufacturing, but you’re still going to have meth problems.”
Although small homemade labs account for a vast majority of the meth in Indiana, most of the meth that is abused nationwide is manufactured in large “superlabs” in Mexico and smuggled into the United States, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
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