By ALEKS TAPINSH
Capital News Service
Friday, October 10, 2003
LANSING – A program to provide free locks to protect chemical tanks
on farms in two Southwest Michigan counties has ended because funds ran
The gas, called anhydrous ammonia, has become a theft target in recent years, prompting the state Department of Community Health to start a program in Van Buren and Allegan counties to distribute free locks for farm tanks. Anhydrous ammonia is injected into soil as a fertilizer.
The pilot program was launched in 2002 and the state Office of Drug Control Policy approved the $25,000 grant to provide 275 locks to farmers.
It is uncertain whether there will be more money in the future.
However, whether the program has hampered meth manufacturing is unknown.
“We’ve not seen a decrease in the number of labs,” said David Bush, a State Police inspector. “But we’ve seen less theft of ammonia.”
Farmers who have used the locks provided by the program applauded the effort. Some of those who haven’t used locks have been targets of theft, Bush said.
Some farmers chose not to use the lock because they don’t see the purpose, he said.
“They always have an excuse for not using them,” he said.
Methamphetamine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that is highly addictive. The drug allows a person to have a boost of energy, little need for sleep and extreme alertness, said Robin Reynolds, executive director of the East Lansing-based Mid-South Substance Abuse Commission.
Its long-term side effects include hallucinations, malnutrition and anorexia, Reynolds said. Short-term effects include irritability and aggressive behavior.
The lock program concentrated on the two counties because of the increasing number of anhydrous ammonia thefts and methamphetamine labs there. However, because of the lack of funding, the program is not likely to expand.
“It’d be great if we could go statewide,” Bush said.
“The program did a good job at hindering the criminals,” said Tod Kubiszak, who raises cattle and corn on a 600-acre farm in Lawrence. “It’s a tremendous program.”
But farmers who use the locks found another problem: Inventive thieves drill through the tank to get the content out.
Kubiszak, who is also county information chair for the Van Buren County Farm Bureau, also said“We’ve had cases when the whole tanks has been stolen. These guys aren’t rocket scientists.”
Kubiszak said he has switched to a liquid form of anhydrous ammonia. The liquid ammonia has less nitrogen and requires more work to fertilize the field. On the positive side, it doesn’t interest the methamphetamine entrepreneurs.
“It works just as well,” Kubiszak said. “Only you have to use three times as much.” At times, it may even be cheaper to use.
Anhydrous ammonia – anhydrous means “without water” -- becomes a gas when exposed to air, though it is stored in liquid form. Once released it seeks moisture, attacking and chemically burning eyes and lungs.
Several state senators are seeking to increase the penalty for the chemical’s theft and its transportation in unapproved containers.
Under current law, ammonia theft carries a maximum 92-day jail sentence. If the proposed legislation is adopted, conviction for theft of anhydrous ammonia will carry up to four years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
“We seemed to have a pretty big problem with meth in Southwest corner,” said Ron Jelinek, R-Three Rivers. “It’s something we need to address.”
Jelinek’s bill would prohibit the use of non-specialized containers to transport the chemical: thermos bottles or propane tanks not suitable for a dangerous gas.
The number of meth-related criminal cases is on the rise in Van Buren County, said Prosecutor Juris Kaps. “This year so far, we had 50 cases,” he said. “Enhanced penalties would make things easier for us.”
Police have broken up 145 meth labs statewide so far this year, 57 of them in Southwest Michigan, according to the State Police.
In comparison, the police broke up 40 labs statewide in 2000.
Southwest Michigan has been an epicenter for lab activity in the state. Jackson and Van Buren lead the list of counties in the number of labs seized by State Police this year.
Apart from anhydrous ammonia, meth makers use items like coffee filters, lithium batteries, over-the-counter cold medicine and engine starting spray that are common and easily available.
Copyright 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism