LANSING – Methamphetamine is moving north.
The powerful stimulant’s hold over Southwest Michigan has already reached epidemic status and is poised to become even more widespread, law enforcement and drug officials warn.
This trend is backed up in a report issued by the state Office of Drug Control Policy, which shows that meth is infiltrating parts of the northern Lower Peninsula.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials hope that training and knowledge gleaned from neighboring states will help them stay ahead of the problem.
In Cadillac, the State Police are seeing the drug’s steady push into the community with increased seizures of illegal labs where the drug is produced, one indicator of a growing problem.
“We’re experiencing a serious meth problem here,” said an undercover officer with the State Police Traverse Narcotics Team in Cadillac.
In surrounding counties, labs are popping up where they hadn’t been found before. For example, this year police have raided four labs in Clare County, two in Missaukee County and one each in Mecosta, Newaygo and Osceola counties.
The Cadillac-based undercover officer said this is a dangerous signal of things to come: “I anticipate it will get worse.”
Law enforcement officials agree that meth is popular because it is cheap and easy to produce at home, has a powerful and extremely addictive high that lasts for hours and, more importantly in rural areas, is easy to get when other drugs that must be imported are more difficult to find.
Although the number of recent raids is small compared to the number of lab seizures farther downstate – Allegan County has had more than 100 in the last three years – awareness of the problem is increasing among law enforcement officials.
This may lead to more raids as officers learn to be on the lookout for meth labs, said Detective Sgt. Mitchell Stevens, commander of the State Police’s criminal investigation unit in Gaylord.
Roscommon County had a lab seized this year after going a year without a bust, and other mid-state counties such as Gladwin, Gratiot and Isabella had labs seized last year, but none so far in 2003.
“With the smaller population densities and large areas of undeveloped land in the north, it gives [meth producers] more places to hide,” Stevens said.
In 1996, six clandestine labs were discovered in Michigan, and since 1999, the number of labs seized in the state has almost doubled every year, according to the Office for Drug Control Policy. Through June of this year, 116 labs were seized and State Police say it’s on track to seize 300 labs by the year’s end.
Crawford County has yet to discover a clandestine lab, but Deputy Jason Alexander with the sheriff’s department thinks it’s just a matter of time: “I guarantee it’s coming.
“I just hope we aren’t going to have a death to make people figure out that this is dangerous stuff.”
Police are increasingly alert to large purchases of over-the-counter cold medicines that contain the chemical ephedrine or psuedoephedrine, and for lithium batteries, Stevens said. Both items are easily bought at grocery and drug stores and are key ingredients in meth production.
Many grocery and drug stores in the Cadillac area monitor suspicious purchases of cold medicine, batteries, white gas and engine starter, also common household products used in production and report them to the State Police.
Although it’s perfectly legal to buy those products, another important chemical for producing meth, anhydrous ammonia, isn’t as readily available.
The volatile liquid fertilizer has only farm applications, making farms a target for theft, said Detective Lt. Tony Saucedo, the unit commander for the State Police’s Methamphetamine Task Force, in Lansing. “We get calls on a daily basis from farmers and farm co-ops about anhydrous ammonia theft.”
Meth can be “cooked” in a variety of places, but production tends to show up in isolated, rural areas because the process is dangerous, producing strong chemical odors and toxic byproducts. These labs are also more often run by a small group of friends rather than a large-scale, for-profit operation, Stevens said, with producers cooking up the drug to feed their own addictions.
This has translated into few seizures of meth from street sales, Stevens said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a large rise in our street seizures.”
In Cadillac and other northern Lower Peninsula areas where agriculture is not a large industry, anhydrous ammonia is harder to buy, which may help to keep the number of clandestine labs down, said the Cadillac-based undercover officer.
But as police pressure mounts in the southwest corner of the state, meth producers will go looking for new areas to start up a lab, Saucedo predicted.
Police are finding that if anhydrous ammonia isn’t readily available locally, it may be transported from areas to the south. Some lab seizures have occurred after police make a routine traffic stop and discover a load of chemicals in the car, Stevens said.
Cadillac’s undercover officer said the one business in the area where anhydrous ammonia could be purchased stopped selling recently it when the owners learned that meth producers might target their company for theft.
In another recent case, a tip came in that a local farmer had a new tank of anhydrous ammonia. When police went to investigate, the undercover officer said, the tank was gone. As it turned out, the tank was ordered fraudulently under the unsuspecting farmer’s name and when it showed up at his farm, he sent it back.
The undercover officer suspects that whoever ordered it was planning to steal the anhydrous ammonia.
Now the closest place to buy it is in Grand Rapids, he said.
To try to stay ahead of the problem, the State Police have ditched their original plan for a single, statewide meth team in favor of cross-training a network of state, county and city officers with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In addition, all police in the state are required to be trained in methamphetamine awareness.
Stevens said neighboring states were overwhelmed by how fast meth can infect communities, adding that police try to use what law enforcement in other states have learned can or can’t work.
Another indicator of meth’s growing popularity is admissions to drug abuse treatment centers. According to the Office of Drug Control Policy, statewide admissions have doubled since 2000.
Dennis Priess, executive director of Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services, says he is seeing the same upward trend in admissions as police are seeing in lab seizures.
The Gaylord treatment center, which serves all of the northern Lower Peninsula, has treated 59 people for meth addiction this year, Priess said. He expects that number to grow because there’s often a delay between when law enforcement see a drug problem and when treatment officials see it.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant that is prescribed by doctors to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, obesity and sometimes, narcolepsy. When abused however, meth users can become severely addicted, staying awake on the drug for several days. These binges can lead to extreme paranoia, hallucinations, hostility and aggressions, according to the Drug Control Policy’s report.
Long-term use can damage the liver, lungs and kidneys and often causes strokes in heavy users. Common problems that result from binges are dehydration, severe weight loss and malnutrition.
In the northeast part of the state, police have yet to see a problem with meth, said Detective Sgt. Mike Hahn, of the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team in Alpena.
“Believe me, I’m scratching my head on this one,” Hahn said. “If meth were for sale on the streets, we’d know about it.”
Hahn admits that the northeast has problems with other drugs such as cocaine and heroin and is just waiting for meth to hit.
Back in Cadillac, the undercover officer cited an example of meth’s power: A Missaukee County man had been arrested for operating a clandestine lab and while out on bail before trial, was arrested again for operating a lab.
“This is how much it’s controlling people’s lives,” he said.
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University
School of Journalism
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism