The Herald Bulletin

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February 24, 2014

Special report: Seeking solutions

In the span of four years, methamphetamine went from a blip on the law enforcement radar to a prime target.

From 2000 to 2009, 40 labs were seized in Madison County by police. In four years since then, 217 have been dismantled by officers.

“It’s almost everything we do now,” said a Madison County Drug Task Force detective who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety.

“And (meth use) is everywhere. We were No. 1 last year (most meth lab busts in the state). Delaware County is No. 1 this year. But it’s not because it’s going on more there now. It’s because they’re focused on the problem now.”

Madison County has two detectives trained to handle methamphetamine cases. In addition, the county has at its disposal the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Unit at the Pendleton post; the team is devoted solely to finding illicit labs. Officials estimate the county has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars combating the problem.

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Those on the front line of the war against meth often focus on pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in methamphetamine production. A proposed measure that’s gaining support would categorize the cold medicine as a controlled substance, obtainable only with a doctor’s prescription. Currently, pseudoephedrine is available to consumers but must be kept behind a pharmacy counter.

Other states with widespread meth problems have passed prescription laws and seen a reduction in local meth cooking and use. Some people, however, believe it would be a disservice to the greater good to take widely used cold remedies — medicines containing pseudoephedrine — off the shelf where they are readily accessible to the general public.

Turning lives around

Every Monday, Madison County Circuit 3 Judge Thomas Newman greets candidates for drug court. It’s usually a positive experience; the candidates are motivated by the prospect of avoiding prison time.

Facing meth users on Mondays, however, can be a distressing part of Newman’s week.

“There are young girls who will come up to the bench, and they’re very pretty. Then they open their mouths, and their teeth are rotten,” Newman said. “It’s disturbing.”

Drug court, designed to find solutions other than prison for addicts, was started in Madison County in 2000 after Newman and other county officials researched similar courts around the nation in search of a working model.

Offenders generally can’t participate in drug court if they have prior violent or sexual offenses. But if offenders violate probation by abusing drugs, they might qualify for drug court to stay out of prison.

Participants meet at Newman’s court weekly to discuss their struggles and seek help. Their problems range from meth addiction to marijuana use.

The court works with local businesses to help offenders find employment and offers therapy and guidance through Aspire, a local substance-abuse support center. Graduation of 18-month and three-year programs takes place every six months.

Today, Madison County boasts the largest drug court in Indiana, with about 120 participants circulating through the program. Roughly 20 candidates graduate the program each cycle.

The program’s recidivism rate — the rate at which drug court graduates run afoul of drug laws again — is about 10 percent, much better than the 30 percent national rate, according to Newman.

Andrew Kneller says he owes his life to people like Newman in the problem-solving court system.

Kneller is a former intravenous drug user and dealer. Tattoos lining his arm and his neck tell the story of his violent past, but his calm, soft voice helps create a different demeanor today. His aggressive and belligerent disposition landed him in prison as a young man, and he served an 11-year sentence, ending in 2007, for aggravated battery and intimidation.

When he got out of prison, the drug underworld of Madison County awaited. Kneller, inspired by gang connections from prison, started cooking and selling meth. He acknowledges that, as a dealer, he helped ruin many lives.

Kneller continued to use meth up until 2010, when he was arrested and charged with possession of meth precursors, pseudoephedrine purchasing violations and possession of cocaine. He was sent back to prison.

During his second stint in prison, Kneller resolved to change his life when his parole came.

The re-entry court run by Newman was instrumental in helping Kneller make that change. An off-shoot of drug court, re-entry court helps offenders who have served lengthy sentences return to society.

Kneller, a 43-year-old Moonsville resident, now works full time and is on track to graduate from re-entry court March 1.

He believes that further restrictions on pseudoephedrine and precursors could slow the meth problem in Madison County. But he believes nothing will stop it.

“So many people are willing to feed off the darkness in other people,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I won’t use these drugs, but I’ll manufacture what you need to make them.’ It’s a complete social breakdown.”

Kneller would like to see shock advertising against meth, publication of victim impact statements and stronger drug education in schools. Most importantly, he’d like to see a shift in how people treat one another.

“We help people change tires on the side of the road, but if someone is struggling financially, or with drugs, it’s like we treat it differently. We just accept those things,” Kneller said. “There’s a lot of poverty here, and people struggling for money or for a release. They have few places to turn.”

Calling for change

Environmental and socioeconomic factors in Madison County make residents especially susceptible to meth use and addiction.

The county ranks among the highest in the state for poverty rates, at about 18.9 percent of the population, according to 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. The county rate of childhood poverty is almost 30 percent.

Neighboring Hamilton County is in single-digit percentages in both categories and is last in the state in poverty. Hamilton County, as evidenced by a paucity of lab busts, does not have a major meth problem.

It’s unlikely that Madison County will undergo a sudden economic surge, so law enforcement officials are looking for other solutions to the meth problem.

They have lobbied the state General Assembly to define pseudoephedrine as a controlled substance. The idea has had some support, but never enough to pass into law.

Pseudoephedrine has remained accessible without a prescription, though it is subject to weekly and monthly purchasing limitations. A person cannot buy more than 3.6 grams of the medicine in one day, or more than 7.2 grams over 30 days. A customer also can’t buy more than 60 milligrams in one transaction.

Opponents of the pseudoephedrine prescription measure have cited infringement on the freedom of legitimate cold sufferers to buy medications like Sudafed and Claritin D. The pharmaceutical lobby has also fought against restrictions that could cut into business.

Others believe that to focus the meth battle on pseudoephedrine is shortsighted. Users, they maintain, will simply find another way of producing or obtaining meth.

The other side

Larry Sage, executive vice president of the Indiana Pharmacists Alliance, doesn’t think making pseudoephedrine a controlled substance is the answer. While the IPA lobbies for the best interests of pharmacists and businesses that sell pharmaceuticals, Sage said the organization also wants to protect the freedoms of consumers.

“We try to think in terms of how can the patient be treated best?” Sage said. “Receiving health care in this country is already a difficult enough process at times, and I think it’s a little more of a draconian solution than what’s called for.”

Sage has faith that the pseudoephedrine purchase recording program, which was enacted in Indiana in 2011, will start to chip away at the problem if it’s given time. Currently, the law requires products with pseudoephedrine to be kept behind the counter, and when requested by purchasers, the retailer must make a detailed record of the transaction.

The buyer must be 18 years old and have a valid government-issued ID. The retailer must report the purchase to the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, where the sales can be tracked by law enforcement.

Mayor Kevin Smith of Anderson also thinks making pseudoephedrine a controlled substance would be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that might not be as serious in a decade. Smith is a former police officer.

“I’m going to say from personal experience, when you have a group that refocuses its priorities, as the Drug Task Force has done, you’re going to see a difference in data,” he said.

Smith thinks increased public awareness and high-profile media coverage of methamphetamine have focused national attention on the problem, but that it is not necessarily an epidemic or even an actual increase in abuse.

“I think it’s a larger, more complex issue,” Smith said. “Humanity has always sought some way to release itself from its daily problems. With modern laws, they tell us we need to create a new law to make something illegal. Well, they’ll just go somewhere else for a fix.”

Smith said such a move would also disadvantage the large majority of people who want to use pseudoephedrine for legitimate therapeutic reasons. Meth might be a hot-button topic right now, but drugs of choice change periodically, Smith said.

A real scourge

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings disagrees.

Since being re-elected in 2010 after four years out of office, Cummings and his office have been flooded with meth-related cases. While he agrees that law enforcement and prosecutors in the county have made meth a priority, he has seen the problem, and it’s real.

“It absolutely tears at the fabric of this community. A lot of people have no idea how bad it is here,” Cummings said. “People who get into meth, their lives are turned upside down. They have almost no chance. And the children here have it worst.”

Cummings and members of the Madison County Drug Task Force support the campaign to make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance. Elwood Mayor Ron Arnold, Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler, State Representative Terri Austin, D-Anderson, and State Senator Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, have voiced their support for such a measure.

“It’s the most effective way to control the situation,” Lanane said. “I don’t know of another effective way to attack the issue.”

Lanane explained that he and other leaders from the Anderson area have difficulty explaining to lawmakers in Indianapolis and other parts of the state just how damaging the problem is.

“It’s a real scourge. The time and effort and money law enforcement has put into it, I think it’s working,” Lanane said. “There’s an overall societal goal here, and it’s a separate inconvenience for people who need a prescription. Public safety has to come first.”

Solutions outside Indiana

Newman points to Oregon’s success in limiting meth use after pseudoephedrine was declared a controlled substance in the state.

In 2005, Oregon became the state with the strictest pseudoephedrine laws. From 2003 to 2005, the state had seized 886 meth labs. Over the next two years, the number dropped to 75. In 2012, Oregon was down to eight lab seizures.

Numbers in Oregon have fallen dramatically, but six nearby states have seen similar declines in meth lab incidents over that time, despite not invoking a pseudoephedrine prescription law.

A 2011 report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy indicates meth remains readily availability in Oregon, owing in large part to an influx of potent crystal meth from “super labs” in Mexico.

But many believe Oregon’s pseudoephedrine prescription law is helping curb meth cooking and use. Rob Bovett, a former district attorney for Lincoln County, Ore., said the law has met with little resistance, outside of the pharmaceutical industry’s financial concerns.

“Nobody is talking about going back,” Bovett said. “It has worked.”

Bovett explained that loose pseudoephedrine laws allow “smurfing,” where several buyers of pseudoephedrine pool their resources to help each other make meth. Since requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, Oregon has essentially quashed smurfing and significantly reduced home meth labs.

Bovett said the perceived increase in imports from super labs is actually the result of the ability of police to focus on organized crime.

“A lot of people don’t know, about 80 percent of meth and crystal meth comes from Mexico. It always has,” Bovett said. “What we’ve done is get our officers out of hazmat suits and out on the road battling trafficking. They can do their job now.”

Missouri, which ranked No. 1 in the country in labs seized in 2012, has laws similar to Indiana’s. Pseudoephedrine purchases are tracked and limited.

However, Bovett noted that certain municipalities in Missouri such as Washington, Union, New Haven, Cape Girardeau and Ozark have enacted prescription requirements for pseudoephedrine and have seen results similar to Oregon’s.

Most of those cities and towns lie in eastern Missouri, where the meth problem was most serious. It still remains a problem, but New Haven Chief of Police John Sheible said the municipal ordinances are working.

“I would say in our community, it’s helped a lot. And it’s helped a lot of other eastern communities that have passed the law, as well,” Sheible said.

Indiana bills in legislature

New Haven is a quiet city of about 2,000 in Franklin County, on the banks of the Missouri River. As a rural Midwestern community just west of St. Louis, it was a prime location for illicit, homemade meth labs.

Just down the road in Union, police Lt. Kyle Kitcher is another proponent of the pseudoephedrine prescription measures. He says the law is working in Union.

After ranking No. 1 in labs seized in 2012, Missouri dropped below Indiana halfway through 2013. Through June, Indiana police had found 956 labs to Missouri’s 888, a huge rate increase for Indiana and a rate decrease for Missouri.

“Here, we have good, professional teams for our sheriff departments, but there’s a lot of ground to cover, and they’ve had to concentrate heavily on the problem,” Sheible said. “Since the law has passed, they’re able to concentrate on other stuff. It’s a costly mess to clean up.”

Back in Indiana, state lawmakers continue to author pseudoephedrine prescription bills. Currently, SB 243, SB 309 and HB 1106 have been introduced, each containing passages that would make pseudoephedrine a controlled substance. Lanane, the Senate Minority Leader, said those bills would each have bipartisan support throughout the state, but the pharmaceutical lobby is battling the legislation.

Another bill, SB 496, passed in the senate on Feb. 10 and would strengthen pseudoephedrine purchasing restrictions. The bill, which will now be passed to the House, would restrict sales of the medicine to retailers participating in the National Precursors Log Exchange, or NPLEX, database. It would also prohibit anyone convicted of certain meth-related crimes from purchasing the drugs without a prescription for seven years.

For now, the Madison County Drug Task Force and ISP meth team will continue to battle the scourge of meth in the county, and Judge Newman will continue to try to give addicts the tools to repair their lives in drug court.

Like Jack Molitor on Facebook and follow him @aggiejack4 on Twitter, or call 640-4883.

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