Methamphetamine use in Vermont is low compared to heroin or cocaine, but it’s that low profile that helps Vermont’s small meth labs to hide in plain sight, according to drug investigators.
While statistics kept by the Vermont Criminal Information Center list more than 2,400 incidents involving marijuana and hashish and 897 incidents involving narcotics such as heroin during 2012 — the most recent reporting year — methamphetamine is part of a broad category of stimulants that police investigated only 82 times that year.
U.S. Department of Justice numbers and drug treatment statistics show similarly low numbers for “meth” with only four clandestine laboratory incidents reported to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012 and only four people were admitted to drug treatment — one 10th of 1 percent of the treatment of all admissions to state-financed drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers — in 2013.
But the numbers are somewhat misleading and drug investigators who focus on methamphetamine activity in the state say there’s significantly more of it being made and used than the statistics would suggest.
“It is a problem here, but there are so few law enforcement officers looking for it and Vermont is such a rural state that people can literally make it in a hunting trailer year round and no one would know about it,” Lt. John Merrigan of the Vermont State Police said this week.
Merrigan, who commands a statewide drug unit that includes a team of meth lab investigators, said there’s no indication that Vermont is poised to see manufacturing and distribution of the highly addictive drug on levels seen in other states — including New York and New Hampshire where meth production is far more prevalent.
But Merrigan and other drug investigators and treatment officials in the state said methamphetamine has been flying quietly under the radar for years due to some characteristics of its production and use in Vermont.
For starters, large-scale manufacture of the drug through red phosphorous reduction — usually referred to as the “red P” method — has never been discovered in Vermont.
“The guys manufacturing here are not Walter White,” state police Sgt. Shawn Loan said, referring to the television show “Breaking Bad,” which deals with a high school chemistry teacher’s descent into meth production and distribution.
While the red phosphorus method resembles work done in chemistry labs, state police Lt. Fred Cornell, commander of the Clandestine Lab Team, said the operations his group has uncovered in Vermont haven’t been run by chemists.
Every meth-making operation state police have uncovered since 2004 — when the first “lab” was discovered in Shrewsbury — has used the so-called “one-pot” method which produces smaller and less potent yields of the drug, Cornell said.
“It’s a simple method that you only need a few ingredients for and you can literally make in a soda bottle,” he said.
While DEA statistics indicate that less than four meth labs have been found in Vermont during each of the last 10 years, Cornell and other drug investigators say that number is incorrect.
“I don’t know why (the DEA) numbers are so low but it may be getting under-reported,” he said.
Cornell and Christopher Herrick, chief of the State Hazmat Response Team, said they estimated that roughly a dozen methamphetamine one-pot labs are found and cleaned up each year in every part of the state and in areas representing every kind of demographic.
“We find them in apartments, in camps, in $400,000 and $500,000 homes,” Cornell said. “They’re all over the place.”
The most recent meth discovery is still under investigation in Proctor where police believe the drug was being produced in an apartment at 9 River St. — a quiet residential side-street.
Drug investigators said the labs are able to remain hidden in most communities because they don’t engender the kind of traffic that bigger operations, like the opiate trade, bring when they move into a community.
Loan said that while most illegal drugs are imported into Vermont by dealers intent on making money, meth users generally make the drug themselves and distribute it mostly only to those who help them make it.
“We’ll find, say, a kid who comes up here from Tennessee who knows how to make meth and he’ll trade the drug for Pseudoephedrine,” he said. “That’s the price a lot of people pay to get their meth.”
Pseudoephedrine, a stimulant found in a number of pharmaceutical drugs including nasal decongestants like Sudafed, is a primary ingredient in the one-pot method and the hardest to come by due to federal and state laws that limit the amount of the drug that can be purchased each day and month.
The implementation last year of an electronic monitoring system that allows Vermont pharmacies to track an individual’s Pseudoephedrine purchases has also made it more difficult for meth makers to simply visit multiple pharmacies to skirt the limit on the amount of the drug they can buy.
To get around the law and the monitoring system, Loan said meth makers engage in a practice known as “smurfing” which involves recruiting many people to buy Pseudoephedrine for them.
The self-contained nature of the meth operations found in Vermont to date have made it hard to uncover them.
But occasionally, as in the Proctor case, an accident or death leads investigators to a meth lab.
Days before the drug investigation in Proctor began, 39-year-old Derek Reed, who shared the apartment with his girlfriend, was found dead in the home.
A state medical examiner’s report released this week indicated that the cause of death was due to “acute and chronic bronchial asthma” caused by the former construction worker’s inhalation of concrete dust. However, a toxicology report also showed the presence of methamphetamine and cocaine in Reed’s system and the medical examiner said substance abuse contributed to Reed’s asthma.
While Reed’s death wasn’t attributed to methamphetamine alone, Herrick said the toxic combination of chemicals used to make the drug can be life-threatening.
“It’s dangerous to breathe, which is why we wear self-contained breathing apparatuses when we clean a site,” he said. “If mixed incorrectly, they can also be flammable and explosive.”
Cornell said a number of fires in Vermont have involved suspected meth labs and one person was maimed by an explosion while making the drug.
“There was a case we had with a Hinesburg kid who was experimenting with making meth in a compressed gas cylinder,” he said. “It didn’t work and it blew up in his face, causing permanent loss of eyesight and serious burns.”