KALAMAZOO, MI – It’s been a battle that law enforcement has been waging for more than a decade in Southwest Michigan, and officers who are on the front lines say the struggle against methamphetamine production is as bad as ever.
In the first half of 2014, Kalamazoo County police officers busted more meth labs than the totals in each of the past four years. In fact, Kalamazoo County’s 88 meth busts through the first six months of the year account for more than 40 percent of all meth busts in Michigan.
“Meth labs are still running rampant out there,” said David Boysen, captain of the Kalamazoo Valley Enforcement Team, a drug unit of officers from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. “It’s been a steady pace where we are still busting a lot of labs.”
Kalamazoo County has far and away been the state leader in methamphetamine production in the past decade, accounting for about 28 percent of all meth labs, but the drug has a strong grip on surrounding counties as well.
In Allegan County, there have been 19 meth busts in the first six months of 2014, putting the county on pace to have the most busts since 2009 when there were 43. In Van Buren County, meth busts are down significantly with nine through the first half of 2014. But in the previous three years, the county had 130 busts, second only to Kalamazoo County.
Statewide, the number of meth lab busts has increased the past two years. The 342 meth busts in 2013 are the most since MSP began tracking those numbers in 2004. The 217 busts in the first half of 2014 are on pace to break that record.
Southwest Michigan remains the hotbed for meth activity, according to the most recent number from Michigan State Police. Seven counties — Kalamazoo, Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren — account for 64 percent of all the meth labs in Michigan’s 83 counties in the past 10 years, according to the MSP stats.
Simply put: “It’s as serious as we’ve ever seen,” said Allegan Police Chief Rick Hoyer.
The statistics for 2014 could look even worse by the end of the year, considering winter is a busy time of year for meth busts, Boysen said.
“It’s a seasonal thing,” Boysen said. “Summer time they tend to cook their meth outside in secluded areas. Colder weather will drive the cooks inside, so we get more complaints.”
Police attribute the rise in meth busts, in part, to the increased training for officers and a more educated public that is quick to call in tips.
“We try to have all our officers trained in meth awareness so they know what to look for. But the majority of tips that come in are from citizens,” Boysen said.
Boysen said about half the citizen tips KVET receives involve methamphetamine. And while the number of meth labs is increasing, the number of officers dedicated to KVET is decreasing.
“I could have my entire team of investigators working on just meth cases, and it would keep them busy,” Boysen said. “But we can’t ignore heroin, crack cocaine, guns on the streets.”
Boysen said due to the high number of meth tips, KVET has to prioritize its investigations based on the threat the meth labs present.
“Meth labs in multi-family structures, apartment buildings, if kids are involved, those cases take priority,” Boysen said.
“I could have my entire team of investigators working on just meth cases, and it would keep them busy,” Boysen said.
Those challenges are familiar to agencies in Allegan County.
“Meth labs and meth investigations monopolize our drug investigators’ time,” Hoyer said.
Because meth investigations are so time-consuming, Hoyer said drugs like heroin and crack cocaine are on the rise in Allegan.
“The users know that we are working hard on meth, so they turn to other drugs,” Hoyer said.
Lawmakers have been trying to help in getting a handle on meth production.
In 2012, a law took effect that was designed to limit meth makers’ access to pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in producing methamphetamine that is found in cold medications such as Sudafed. The law caps the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy and requires buyers to enter their name in a law enforcement database.
But meth cooks have found ways around the law by recruiting and paying accomplices, known as “surfs,” to buy the product for them.
“It’s a market-driven thing. If you can get $50 for a box of pseudo, people are going to buy it,” Boysen said.
After a 2013 Kalamazoo Gazette investigation found that pseudoephedrine was still being purchased at a high rate in Southwest Michigan, more legislation was enacted to try to get a handle on the problem.
Public Act 218 targets smurfing by making the act of purchasing pseudoephedrine with knowledge that it will be used to make meth punishable by up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
But some law enforcement officials say the law will have little effect on the problem. Boysen said it’s a law that is tough to enforce, especially with dwindling resources.
“We have barely enough resources to go after heroin, meth labs, and guns. We just don’t have the resources to track down the people buying this stuff,” Boysen said. “We’re just trying to maintain and keep a lid on it.”
Hoyer said the anti-smurfing law doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s all window dressing,” Hoyer said. “It’s skirting the issue.”
Instead, Hoyer is among the proponents of making pseudoephedrine products available only by prescription.
“The answer is not more enforcement. The answer is making it prescription-only,” Hoyer said.
Attorney General Bill Schuette told the Kalamazoo Gazette this month that he would be open to discussing the possibility of a prescription-only law but fell short of offering his support.
“I’m open to the review of it, to talk with law enforcement, work with the legislature and determine the best way to handle it,” Schuette said.
Hoyer said he fears Southwest Michigan has grown numb to its problem with methamphetamine.
“We’ve become tolerant and desensitized to it, because it’s been going on so long,” Hoyer said. “We have to realize that we are better than this.”