SW Ind. drug task force still overwhelmed by meth

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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A little more than a year ago, detectives with the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Drug Task Force were overwhelmed with methamphetamine-related complaints — responding to drug labs and tracking down the small time dealer-users and their networks of people feeding them pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient for making meth.

"It was tying a lot of the guys' time up to where they couldn't work on long-term cases," said Detective Brock Hemsley of the Evansville Police Department.

This year is poised to be no different. The number of meth labs uncovered is on track to exceed last year and the year before that, Hemsley said. Related arrests also are on the rise. As of Oct. 31, local law enforcement had already responded to 92 meth labs this year, compared with 112 for all of 2011 and 88 for 2010, according to Evansville Police Department records. Those records also showed 85 people had been charged with making meth, 100 with dealing it and 129 with possessing the drug in the city as of Oct. 31 this year.

Indiana State Police were involved in investigating 86 meth lab incidents in Gibson, Posey, Vanderburgh and Warrick counties through September this year, of which 53 were in Vanderburgh.

The story the numbers tell, however, speaks both to the scope of the problem and the effort to solve it.

"It's a good statistic and a bad statistic all at once," Hemsley told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/TLaWKR ).

Hemsley is one of four officers assigned to the EPD's Meth Suppression Unit, created specifically to focus on the drug. The unit's creation has eased some of that pressure on other narcotics officers, but it hasn't been without other costs.

"When you have four guys who are actually out looking for meth labs full-time and investigating complaints, you are going to have more of them found," he said.

However, that also means taking manpower away from other units, said Assistant Police Chief Chris Pugh.

"We have put people whose sole responsibility is meth, but we have had to pull people and redo our manpower to do it," he said. "It is a huge problem for police departments because we have had to dedicate so much manpower to it."

Pugh was a narcotics detective in the late 1990s when methamphetamine use, which had long been present in Evansville, turned into an epidemic driven by the growth of do-it-yourself meth-making techniques that undercut the necessity for dealers who obtained it from outside sources, often the Southwest or Mexico.

"Meth was always thought of as a biker-type drug. Evansville has always had a meth problem, but it really became a bigger problem with the labs," Pugh said. "It was like an explosion. It was like overnight a switch was flipped and these meth labs started showing up. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist, you didn't have to be a chemist to make it.

Now that they are using the one-pot method, it's even easier. There is a huge appetite for meth. It is a huge problem here."

In fact, the "one-pot" method of making meth — which involves the use of pseudoephedrine, other chemicals and a plastic liter soft drink bottle — accounted for 78 percent of meth lab seizures through September of this year, according to Indiana State Police.

It is a problem throughout the state, not just Evansville. State police statistics show arrests related to meth labs have increased steadily, rising from 734 in 2009 to 1,063 as of September. There have been 1,238 meth labs reported to state police as of September.

Even more telling, there were six arrests related to meth labs in 1995 in Indiana, according to state police. In 2011 there were 1,420 meth lab arrests.

Meth labs have injured at least 198 people, including 82 law enforcement officers and 11 children, from 2000 to through September 2012, according to state police.

Additionally, the deaths of 22 adults and two children were attributed to methamphetamine during that same 12-year period.

Nearly half of those deaths were caused by fires or explosions. Five methamphetamine-related deaths were attributed to police shootings or pursuit crashes.

Pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in some allergy and cold medicines, is the key ingredient needed for home-cooking methamphetamine. Beginning in January, all Indiana pharmacies were required to use an instant "meth check" electronic tracking program that blocks one-time purchases of more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine containing drugs and disallows more than 7.2 grams to be bought every 30 days.

Called the National Precursor Log Exchange, the system also is used in Illinois and Kentucky, helping stop sales from across state lines.

Indiana State Police data show that meth lab seizures increased more than 22 percent since the system was instituted.

However, while information from the system has helped boost lab seizures, it has had little effect on the overall problem.

"Making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug is the only way we are ever going to stop it," Hemsley said.

Even then, he acknowledged, it won't completely stem the tide.

"It's a complicated subject. People often ask me, 'What are going to do about this meth problem?' There is no easy answer," said Dr. William Wooten, a well-known local addiction specialist.

The retired physician was tapped by Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke to head his Mayor's No Meth Task Force. Creating the meth task force was one of Winnecke's first priorities upon taking office in January.

The group is charged with finding a strategy to tackle the problem and creating a plan to implement it.

"Meth is a significant issue in this community from the standpoint of social and economic perspectives," Wooten said. "The number of meth users and related injuries and deaths is small compared to alcohol, but meth is consuming the time of law enforcement and taxpayer dollars. It's an economic problem disproportionate to the number of people using that drug."

Wooten said the task force is concentrating its short-term strategy on making pseudoephidrine a prescription drug.

"That appears to be a solution that has worked in other communities," he said.

State Rep. Ron Bacon, R-Chandler, attempted two bills to address the problem during the last legislative session, but neither succeeded in getting a hearing.

One would have imposed a statewide prescription requirement for pseudoephidrine and the other would have allowed communities to develop local ordinances to do that.

Bacon, whose district at the time included most of Vanderburgh County, said he plans to sponsor similar legislation this year.

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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