Catherine Silver-Martin watched sternly as officers dressed in hazmat suits carried plastic bottles, aluminum foil, and chemicals from her neighbor’s Varney Street home Friday.
“I suspected it,” the Port Huron woman said as she watched Port Huron police and St. Clair County Drug Task Force across the street. “But I didn’t realize the magnitude of what he was doing.
“I’m glad they’re here. I’m glad they’re taking out these meth labs.”
From January through mid-June, the St. Clair County Drug Task Force made 17 raids involving methamphetamine and seized about 165 grams of the drug.
That’s nearly as many meth raids as the task force totals for each of the last three years.
“That is the popular drug right now and it happens to be the most dangerous,” said St. Clair County Sheriff Lt. Kevin Manns, who leads the task force.
“Meth is not only dangerous to the user, but the people around them as well.”
Danger is one thing. Time is another.
The increase in methamphetamine labs, busts and fires has been consuming the time and efforts of the St. Clair County Drug Task Force and other law enforcement officers, Manns said.
Heroin and cocaine continue to be a challenge for law enforcement, Manns said. But meth — a highly addictive stimulant — can create fumes and fires during and after production that threaten more than just the user.
The volatile waste requires special training, careful handling and monitoring until it can be disposed of by the Michigan State Police.
“It’s a waste of a lot of resources,” Manns said. “Not only do you have police departments tied up, you also have fire and rescue. Sometimes they’re there a whole day.”
And St. Clair County isn’t the only area encountering problems. The state as a whole has seen a rise in the drug.
Michigan State Police cataloged 645 meth incidents statewide in 2013, 861 in 2014, and 330 so far in 2015.
An increasing burden
In 2012, the St. Clair County Drug Task Force made seven raids involving methamphetamine. In 2013, 13. In 2014, 24.
With 17 meth busts in the first half of the year, 2015 is on track to beat any prior numbers.
Manns said the drug’s homegrown appeal and easily accessible directions online have increased its popularity.
What once took a chemist to make can now be produced in a 2-liter pop bottle with items bought at Meijer or Wal-Mart. It can be made in a car, in a home, in a shed and it typically doesn’t travel far.
“The stuff that they’re making they’re generally making for themselves or for local sale,” Manns said.
That’s different from other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, which are usually funneled in from outside the area.
The only meth ingredient semi-controlled through pharmacies is pseudoephedrine tablets. But meth producers have found ways to sidestep restrictions by hiring people to buy the tablets in exchange for some of the finished product — a practice referred to as “smurfing.”
St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon said further restrictions on pseudoephedrine would allow officers to get a handle on the growing problem.
“You have to have more control over the components of it,” Donnellon said.
“There’s no shortage of people who do this. You have to make it harder for them.”
A drain on resources
The production leaves a trail of dump sites with empty camping fluid canisters, batteries with the lithium strip peeled out, pseudoephedrine blister packs and boxes and 2-liter plastic bottles with a powdery residue inside.
The St. Clair County Special Response Team is trained to contain and raid a meth lab, Manns said. The Drug Task Force then is equipped to bring the evidence out and process it.
But to dispose of the meth lab waste — whether it’s found during a raid or at a dump site — a special team form the Michigan State Police is needed for transport.
He said state police have been so busy with disposal that they now only respond during business hours.
If the Drug Task Force raids a meth lab at the end of the day Friday, deputies would have to wait until Monday morning for the state police to respond.
Both the St. Clair County Sheriff Department and the Port Huron Police Department have plans this year to train some officers and deputies in transport and disposal to speed up the process.
“It’s been a real burden for us financially,” Donnellon said. He added that meth raids, processing and disposal pose added risks to law enforcement.
“Stuff gets dumped, covered with snow and then discovered when the snow melts,” Donnellon said. “We had one that sat under snow all winter and ignited when they tried to move it.”
Homes, cars, hotels and garages also are at risk, not only for fires after or during meth lab production, but also for long-term contamination.
Cleaners specially trained in meth decontamination are forced to dispose of most fabrics and items in the home as the lingering fumes from production can be harmful to people living in the home.
Port Huron Public Safety Director Michael Reaves said a few city fires have been attributed to meth activity in the first half of 2015, including house fires on Court and Wall streets, and a car fire at Harker and Stone streets.
“We’ve had multiple fires related to the cooking and processing of methamphetamine,” Reaves said. “It’s a risk that branches out into other areas and it affects the whole neighborhood.”
Reaves said the city recognizes that the issue is more prevalent in Port Huron, but it’s not unique to the area either.
Of the 17 meth raids the Drug Task Force conducted in the first half of 2015, five were in Port Huron.
The rest were spread out among Fort Gratiot, Port Huron Township, Algonac, Kimball Township, Marysville, Clyde Township and St. Clair Township.
There also were several meth raids and busts initiated by Port Huron police, and not included in the Drug Task Force numbers.
“We’ve stopped people walking with it in a backpack. People on bicycles. People in cars,” Reaves said.
“It’s extremely time consuming. It sucks resources that we candidly don’t have.”
The Varney Street raid Friday by the Port Huron police was the second of two suspected meth labs found in fewer than 24 hours.
The raids were part of the grant-funded Operation Neighborhood Take-Back.
While the use and production of meth continues to drain law enforcement resources, authorities also continue to address a growing opiate-based prescription pill and heroin addiction.
And problems with cocaine, once the dominant threat in St. Clair County, have never gone away.
The Drug Task Force has seized 105 grams of heroin and 401 grams of cocaine in the first half of the year.
The unit seized a total of 428 doses of Xanax, Hydrocodone, and Oxycodone, and hundreds of tablets of other prescription pills.
Authorities also seized 3,102 grams of marijuana and 187 plants.
The number of overdose deaths involving heroin rose from 15 in 2011 to 34 in 2014, according to the St. Clair County Medical Examiner’s office. Twenty-one of the deaths in 2014 were due to a heroin-fentanyl mixture.
Donnellon said drug-related overdoses, usage and busts have increased dramatically over the past 10 years.
“We didn’t have a fraction of the issues we have now,” Donnellon said. “It’s a crisis.”
The Drug Task Force has arrested 143 people in the first half of 2015, and filed 173 felony charges and 135 misdemeanor charges.
Fifty-three of those arrested claimed Port Huron residency and 32 of the Drug Task Force’s 61 raids occurred in Port Huron.
Nine of those arrested claimed Detroit residency. Donnellon said it’s likely several of the other 134 people arrested are from Wayne County, but claimed St. Clair County residency after living here for a short time period.
The Drug Task Force is a multi-agency unit made up St. Clair County Sheriff deputies, and members of the Port Huron Police Department, St. Clair County Prosecutor’s Office, U.S. Border Patrol, and U.S. Air and Marine.
It is funded through a .2803-mill tax that is up for renewal in 2016.
Effects of Methamphetamine Usage
- Methamphetamine is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant.
- In small doses, meth creates euphoria, paranoia, hyperthermia, decreased appetite and increased physical activity.
- In larger doses, meth can lead to an increased heart rate, hypertension, convulsions chest pain, stroke, renal failure, tremors and irreversible damage to the blood vessels in the brain.
- Long-term usage could lead to paranoia, insomnia, hallucinations, severe dental problems, delusions of parasites or insects on the skin, violent tendencies.
Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (formerly Michigan Department of Community Health)