Daytona Beach is the only city to have seen a significant decrease in labs so far this year following a major meth bust that took down some of the area’s most prolific cooks. Despite the decrease in Daytona Beach, which had the most meth labs last year, there has still been a nearly 50 percent increase overall for the county from January through August of this year compared to the same time period last year.
From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, the Volusia County Clandestine Lab Response Team broke up 73 meth labs, according to Volusia County Sheriff’s Office records. During the same time period last year, 49 labs were busted.
In 2012, there were 81 labs busted, leaving local authorities concerned considering the steep increase from the 28 labs busted in 2011. In 2010, there were just 15 busts.
The situation in Flagler County looks drastically different. Through August, narcotics investigators busted just one lab, Flagler sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Bob Weber said. Last year there were no recorded meth labs in Flagler, but there was one arrest of a suspect caught with materials that could be used to make meth.
Though Daytona Beach had the most meth labs in Volusia County from January through August last year (20 to be exact), the city has had the biggest decrease so far this year from January through August with 10 labs.
Police Chief Mike Chitwood attributed the decrease to his narcotics team’s busting the handful of major cooks who were serving the area, as well as multiple users in “Operation Shake N Bake,” which resulted in the arrests of, or arrest warrants for, 31 suspects.
“From what I understand, each cook has an individual signature,” Chitwood said. “Our narcotics investigators were able to concentrate, with the help of the county and DEA, and focus on who (the major cooks) were.”
Chitwood said the cook’s “signature” can include the specific ingredients they use, their preferred paraphernalia, the way it’s cooked and where it’s cooked.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Meth is an addictive stimulant drug that strongly activates certain systems in the brain and has a high potential for abuse. The chemicals or ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine are often illegally diverted from legitimate sources.”
Meth comes in many forms and can be smoked, snorted, injected or orally ingested, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Daytona Beach police Detective Jason Youngman said laws put on the books in recent years that limited the amount of Sudafed — which contains the primary ingredient in making meth — a person could purchase did a decent job of initially making the meth-cooking process more difficult. However, meth makers continue to send in meth users or homeless people to buy the ingredients in exchange for a gram of the drug or a small amount of money.
Youngman said the only suspect in “Operation Shake N Bake” who has continued to elude police is 31-year-old Lee Noland Miller, wanted on a charge of sale and delivery of methamphetamine.
He said one of the bigger cooks busted in the operation, 38-year-old Robert Hale, recently accepted a plea deal and will serve eight years in prison.
Though meth has become a major problem for the county, Chitwood said it hasn’t crossed socioeconomic lines to the degree that pills did.
“There’s really no stigma to taking pills,” Chitwood said. “Because of the chemicals and the way it’s ingested, (meth) may not be as attractive as being addicted to pain pills.”
He said he still considers the crackdown on the pill problem to be the reason for meth’s continued rise in popularity.
Edgewater and Ormond Beach have seen the biggest increases this year compared to last year. Eleven labs were busted in Edgewater, and nine were busted in Ormond Beach, from January through August. During the same time last year, two labs were busted in Edgewater and one in Ormond Beach.
Edgewater Police Chief Dave Arcieri said meth’s popularity also can be attributed to the ease of producing and transporting the substance in small, one-pot operations.
Arcieri and other officials have found labs in vacant lots, vehicles, motel rooms, homes and even in the middle of woods.
But law enforcement officials aren’t the only ones who have found themselves tasked with worrying about meth labs — it’s an issue for the tourism industry, too.
Bob Davis, the CEO/president of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Volusia County, said training employees at hotel and lodging facilities on how to recognize and deal with a meth lab became a priority as labs continued to pop up in hotels and motels across the county.
“If somebody comes in with cash, you’re leaving yourself wide open,” Davis said. “You need identification, even if they’re paying with cash.”
He also said someone who requests their room not be touched by the hotel’s cleaning crew is “a major red flag.”
While Chitwood feels positive about the decrease in his own city, he said the war on drugs will never end.
“It’s a shame, but in my experience we can crack down on whatever substance we want to crack down on, but there’ll always be somebody inventing a new substance,” he said, citing the continued development of various synthetic drugs.
“I don’t think we even have a handle on what’s about to come our way,” Chitwood said.