It takes a special kind of person to go undercover to fight the continuing war on illegal drugs — one who is not afraid of mingling among the sketchier members of the criminal element and who can remain cool under pressure.
Even when that pressure is a gun pointed straight at his face.
“It’s happened,” said Task Force Officer Eric, who works with the Combined Ozarks Multi-jurisdictional Enforcement Team, or COMET. “In this job, you have to think, look and act like the people you are dealing with. You have to trust your informant completely on their level, but you take all necessary safety precautions. Sometimes it gets scary.”
TFO Eric is one of six COMET members covering seven counties in southwest Missouri. Those include Taney, Stone, Christian, Webster, Polk, Lawrence and Greene.
Eric works hand in hand with members of the Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force, the Monett Drug Task Force and other county and municipal agencies throughout the seven-county area.
The SWMODTF, headed by John Luckey, has three officers covering Barry and McDonald counties.
“Our funding has been cut to the point we have lost two secretaries and two officers,” Luckey said. “I now have three officers, including myself, to try and combat this issue.”
While Luckey no longer works undercover, he takes point on giving presentations to schools, civic and public events, as well as teaching safety courses to officers who may have dealings with roadside meth trash and other hazardous activities.
George Daoud, a detective with the Monett Police Department, is the only officer with that agency who is certified in meth lab clean-up and disposal.
“I have patrol officers who can make arrests on street-side activity, if they find marijuana or pills, or even finished meth,” Daoud said. “But if there is a lab, they call me out and I have to respond.”
Daoud does all the follow-up investigations on drug-related activity inside the city of Monett.
Drug enforcement agents in southwest Missouri are not as concerned with the shake and bake labs, typically used by addicts to manufacture enough methamphetamine for personal use, as they are the thousands of metric tons of finished “ice” being shipped from Mexico. According to John Luckey, Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force director, this type of meth is stronger and more addictive, and easier to get than product manufactured in a shake and bake lab.
“It’s out there,” Daoud said. “A lot of it.”
With funding cuts impacting manpower across the state, local agencies are working together harder than ever to combat the growing meth problem.
“It’s not the shake and bake labs we’re worried about these days,” Luckey said. “We’re worried about the Mexican ice coming into the area. Several thousand metric tons in recent years.”
“And the Mexican meth is so prevalent, there is no reason for most people to even try and make it,” Eric added. “They are finding new ways to get it into the country every day.”
“The shake and bake labs are primarily for an addict’s personal use,” Daoud said. “They don’t make enough to share or sell. But they’re still dangerous.”
Luckey has 40 hours of classroom training and a “lifetime of experience” in cleaning up meth labs.
“Every lab is a new experience,” he said. “Cooks are always changing their recipes, making gadgets that are supposed to eliminate the smell or adding new chemicals to the process. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I have never seen two of the same recipe.”
The problem with any kind of meth lab is the danger of explosion.
“If something goes wrong, they don’t know how to fix it,” Luckey said.
Investigators are also finding, along with labs, a prevalent abuse of prescription medications among meth addicts.
“In the late [1990s], when we first started getting labs, we saw prescription medications there at the very beginning,” Luckey said. “No one paid attention. Then we realized how serious opiate addiction is and how it goes hand-in-hand with meth addiction.
“The thing about prescription meds is that kids love them too. Prescription drugs are easier to get. It’s easy to walk into grandpa’s house and get into his medicine cabinet.”
“Or grandpa could be selling his own prescriptions to subsidize his living,” Eric said.
“Grandpa may be getting 120 oxycontin a month and only need 20,” Luckey said. “In this economy, what does he do? Sell them off. He may have worked hard all of is life, but is now reduced to selling his medication in order to live.”
“We’re finding, due to the economy, a lot of retired people are selling their prescription medications,” Daoud said. “We’ve arrested several people doing that.”
People selling their own medication is hard to track and harder to prove.
“Grandpa may have gotten his 120 pills refilled yesterday,” Eric said. “If I go in today and only find 20, what am I going to do? He’ll tell me he lost them or flushed what he didn’t need down the toilet. How am I going to prove differently?”
“We do follow reports of stolen medications closely,” Daoud added. “Doctors are starting to not refill those orders because the situation is so bad. But then, it’s usually not someone’s heart pills that go missing, it’s narcotics.”
The most popular medications being abused at this time are Valium, Xanax, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, Vicodin and, surprisingly, Ritalin.
“It softens the crash,” Luckey said.
Along with the addiction and physical toll extracted by the use of illegal drugs comes the sociological impact to community and family. Those range from child abuse, child endangerment, spousal abuse and assaults.
“When someone is tweaking, when they’ve been high for a very long period of time, they are extremely paranoid,” Eric said. “They can be very dangerous.”
“They have cameras all over the place,” Luckey said. “They think they’re Superman, but most talk bigger than they can produce.”
“They will also have plenty of knives, guns and other weapons around,” Daoud added.
The investigators said meth encompasses every socio-economic class of person, occupation and age, much like alcohol addiction.
“Some people can quit for a limited term but relapse,” Daoud said.
“I’ve interviewed over 1,000 people who say they can take it or leave it,” Luckey said. “Others said they used it one time and knew right then the Devil had them and that was it. There is a 97 percent recidivism rate among meth users.
“I’ve interviewed users who said the first time they took it was the highest high they ever had. This drug drops huge amounts of dopamine and adrenalin into the pleasure centers of the brain. Long-term use destroys those pleasure centers and they have to use again just to regain those feelings.”
“They’re chasing the high for the rest of their lives,” Daoud said.
“And they never get that high again,” Eric added. “Ever.”
“It’s not that physically addicting,” Luckey said. “It’s psychological.”
When cooks can’t get their hands on pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient for making meth, they turn to other means to feed that addiction.
“If you stop production of Sudafed, they couldn’t make meth,” Luckey said. “They’d just turn to opiates. I don’t see the demand ever going away.”
Like marijuana, which is illegal in Missouri, users turn to synthetics, such as K2.
“There is no regulation on how synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured,” Luckey said.
Cannabinoids is a blanket term covering a family of complex chemicals, both natural and man-made, that lock on to cannabinoid receptors of the brain to simulate a high.
“People are now ordering the chemicals from overseas and spraying them on grass clippings and packaging them from their homes,” Eric said.
“And I’m tired of seeing teenagers throw up in the park at Cassville every night,” Luckey said. “We have actually been seizing these chemicals from people’s homes.”
But those caught in the act of committing these crimes shouldn’t expect many “breaks” for coming clean and turning over other known manufacturers.
“If people want to give us information on other drug dealers and expect any kind of deal in return, it has to be actionable,” Eric said. “We can make recommendations to the prosecuting attorney, but theirs is the final call. And make no mistake, no matter what, he will have something to hold over their heads.”
“When we question an informant, we already know the answers,” Luckey added. “If they lie to us, we know they can’t be trusted and we don’t put our faith in them.”
“If anyone has committed a felony, caused bodily harm, property damage or have to pay restitution, we can’t work with them, either,” Eric said.
These investigators admit they merely serve as a Band-Aid to a problem that is hemorrhaging across the entire state and nation.
“If we take one down, three more take his place,” Daoud said. “But if someone didn’t try and stop it, it would run rampant. I do this for public safety. We try to get the major ones off the street. I have no preconceived notions I’m going to change the world, but for every tweaker we get off the street, that could be one more rape, burglary or assault we have prevented.”
“These people aren’t just injuring themselves,” Eric said. “It’s not a victimless crime. It destroys families and communities. So not only are we helping the community, once in awhile, we come across one or two people where we have actually changed their lives.”
“People will surprise you,” Daoud said. “When they come up to thank you for arresting them the first of second time and tell you that you changed their lives, it catches you off guard. In a good way.”
“We do this to help people who can’t, or won’t, help themselves,” Luckey said.
Investigators urge all people with prescription medications to use extra care unmaking sure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
For those with outdated or expired medications, a Drug Take Back Day is scheduled for April 26 at Old Town Pharmacy in Monett. Medications will be disposed after collection by officials with the Monett Police Department.