KALAMAZOO — Six years after Michigan declared war on methamphetamine with a slew of new laws, the drug is back, worse than ever.
Last year there were 756 meth incidents statewide, compared to 451 when the laws were adopted in 2005. The state’s meth problem is most severe in Southwest Michigan, with Kalamazoo County leading the state last year with 97 incidents.
As clandestine meth manufacturing has soared, people burned from such operations have taxed the local hospital’s burn unit, meth-related crime and property contamination have escalated, and state and federal funding to clean up the mess has evaporated.
Here is how the meth problem has morphed since 2005, when the Kalamazoo Gazette examined the problem in a special eight-day series titled, “The Menace of Meth.”
Then: Houses are blowing up and burning down when volatile homemade meth-making chemicals set off explosions in large-scale, home-based “meth labs.”
Changes: Meth manufacturers simplify their methods, including making frequent small batches for personal use.
Now: Today’s meth “cooks” favor small batches, made in 2-liter pop bottles, often in cars or outbuildings. The small “one-pot” operations are more common and more deadly: In 2010, there were 37 confirmed lab fires, 32 people injured and three deaths as a result of the lab fires. All three deaths occurred in Southwest Michigan. There were 17 meth-burned patients treated at Bronson Methodist Hospital’s burn unit last year, compared to five in 2008.
Challenges: Discovering and disrupting small meth operations.
Then: Dangerous chemicals used in methamphetamine production quickly contaminate the surroundings, leaving unsuspecting renters, motel guests and home-buyers vulnerable to exposure to contamination.
Changes: State legislators in April 2004 pass a law requiring the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality be notified each time a meth lab is discovered. The law requires sites to remain vacant until chemicals are removed, contaminated areas cleaned and property certified safe for occupancy.
Now: Enforcement has flagged because of lack of funds. Kalamazoo County is the only county in the area that continues to track and address contaminated properties. Allegan County is not involved in any meth-related cleanups; Van Buren County’s methamphetamine task force has disbanded.
Kalamazoo County has had cuts too, but employees share duties, including checking on condemned meth properties.Consultation with homeowners and landlords and other services that were once offered are now left to private contractors.
Challenges: Tracking and posting locations of contaminated dwellings and enforcing cleanup of sites; finding money to pay for crime scene waste disposal.
Then: Theft and excessive purchases of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine are rampant; meth cooks ruin farmers’ fertilizer tanks and disrupt planting by stealing anhydrous ammonia used in methamphetamine production.
Changes: New laws greatly restrict sale of cold medicines to adults only, sold either behind the pharmacy counter or requiring a signature in a log book; federal laws establish a procedure to track and limit import of pseudophedrine to the amount needed only for legitimate cold medication sales. Fertilizer additives stain cooks with pink dye and render the end-product meth less desirable.
Now: The fertilizer theft problem is largely resolved when meth cooks move to new methods of production that do not require that chemical. That leaves pseudophedrine-containing cold medications as the key ingredient. Meth cooks in Michigan skirt new restrictions by moving from store to store and recruiting friends to help buy cold tablets; stores’ databases are rarely linked and buyers can purchase the limit at multiple stores. Law-enforcement agencies lack the time and staffing to review handwritten logs, or to compare sales from one store to another to track down offenders. A black market for cold tablets has emerged.
Challenges: Oregon and Mississippi require prescriptions for products containing pseudophedrine, and similar prescription-only legislation is now being drafted in Michigan. Supporters predict stiff opposition by pharmaceutical companies.
Then: Cleanup of hazardous waste at meth crime scenes is paid for with federal funds.
Changes: In February, the federal funding is used up and not restored by Congress.
Now: Local governments are scrambling to figure out how to pay for the initial cleanup of such crime scenes. “It’s something that’s coming to a head,” said Allegan County Undersheriff Jim Hull.
Challenges: Without money to pay for disposal of meth-making materials, many police agencies that lack funding for the work “are only getting involved if there’s no way to get out of it,” Hull said.
“They’re not going out and searching for it.”