While clandestine methamphetamine labs sprouted like mushrooms across much of the state and the Midwest several years ago, Lawrence was largely spared.
But times are changing, local police say.
Investigators in Lawrence say they have found ominous signs that new forms of meth, including powerful drug crystals imported from “superlabs” in Mexico and new, do-it-yourself “one-pot” recipes that have already spread like wildfire in counties to the south, are starting to show up in Lawrence.
One thing hasn’t changed about meth, they say: There is no easy way to stop it.
Just recently, discarded 2-liter soda bottles and chemical packages — which often look like simple trash — left behind by “one-pot” meth cooks have been found in Lawrence. Police are seizing more factory-produced meth, or “ice,” during arrests, and are noting a widespread increase in the kind of burglaries and identity theft committed by people in the grip of a daily addiction.
More and more often, criminal suspects associated with these crimes admit they are using meth, or carry marks on their arms from injecting the drug, said Shannon Riggs, an officer with the Lawrence Police Department’s drug enforcement unit.
“Even in the last six months, it’s changed,” Riggs said. “Just the amount of hypodermic needles that I’ve taken off of people — a couple of them a week.”
Federal officials and law enforcement to the south have already warned that a storm of cheap meth is on the way.
Most meth labs in Kansas were put out of business after new laws passed in 2005 and 2009 made it harder to buy bulk quantities of key ingredients like pseudoephedrine, according to data collected by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But in 2011, after declining for years, seizures of meth-cooking equipment in Kansas saw a large increase, from 143 to 214. Sheriff’s offices in southeastern Kansas complained of an epidemic of “one-pot” meth cooks spreading all the familiar ills of drug addiction again.
Recipes for “one-pot” meth, easily available online, typically involve mixing reactive metals and acids inside a cheap container such as a 2-liter soda bottle. The ingredients can be bought at any Walmart for $30. But it is a volatile mix. Bits of metal are superheated in contact with water and can burn a hole in the bottle, often creating an accidental flamethrower.
The worst of it has been seen in counties bordering Oklahoma and Missouri, including Cherokee, Montgomery, Labette and Crawford counties. Those four counties were responsible for 62 of the state’s meth lab incidents last year, including lab, dump site and other material seizures. Last year, Christopher Williams, a drug detective with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, predicted the problem would soon spread north.
“If the people of Douglas County don’t think that this is coming, they’re wrong,” he said.
Now, police in Lawrence have found discarded “one-pot” equipment in Lawrence. The number of such finds across the state has fallen back to pre-2011 levels, but police say that may be part of a larger problem.
Speaking frankly, drug investigators say the quality of the “one-pot” meth doesn’t compare to the professionally manufactured “ice” now being brought to Lawrence courtesy of Mexican drug cartels. And Lawrence sits on a major crossroad for drug trafficking in the United States because interstates 70 and 35 are major regional pipelines for all kinds of contraband, including meth.
Police investigating drugs in Lawrence say a dealer coming to town with a half-pound of meth — worth about $20,000 on the street — is often only one or two steps removed from the cartel. If Lawrence is seeing a new wave of Mexican meth, it would be typical of what has happened elsewhere in the country, said David Mizell, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Kansas City.
Although the number of meth users nationally dropped from 731,000 in 2006 to about 353,000 in 2010, increased trafficking by drug cartels is threatening to reverse that trend. As meth became more costly to produce in the U.S., Mexican-organized crime groups increased their production and began using already-established distribution networks to take over the business.
“Our biggest threat that we see is from the Mexican methamphetamine,” Mizell said. “For several years, it’s been increasing. It’s more pure, better quality, and if that is more available and more cheap to use, then you’ll see a rise in use.”
As police in Lawrence note that rise in use, they point to the high cost of the addiction for users and society. Federal reports say the price of a gram of meth has been dropping over the past two years as larger and larger quantities are smuggled into the country, but it still costs anywhere from $80 to $100 per gram in Lawrence. To keep up a daily habit — which often goes around the clock — people will turn to crime.
Police aren’t always able to prove the connection but it often is clear enough to the officers, and numbers tell part of the story, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman.
In the past year, burglaries, counterfeiting and forgery crimes have jumped in Lawrence. Burglaries rose from 533 in 2011 to 636 in 2012, partly driven by a rash of home burglaries last summer. Forgeries of checks, counterfeit bills and identity thefts, classed together by the police department’s crime analysts, have more than doubled from 137 in 2010 to 281 last year. At the same time, other crimes, such as auto burglaries and shoplifting, have held roughly steady.
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Lawrence police officer Shannon Riggs, investigating drugs in Lawrence, said he has arrested some people repeatedly, for numerous crimes, who are obviously using meth and admit it. The Mexican “ice” being sold in Lawrence is different animal from what’s been here before, and the effect on users is distinctive, he said.
“Once they start going on ice, after they’ve been using crappy dope for a while, the addiction just takes off,” Riggs said. After days and days of use, paranoia and psychosis set in. People will do things they ordinarily wouldn’t.
“They go through people’s trash, find a check book, and they just go out forging. These people are responsible for 30 cases in the past month,” he said. “It’s nonstop.”
Watching and waiting
So far, staff at local drug rehabilitation centers say they haven’t seen a big increase in new arrivals addicted to meth, but there are indications that could change.
Jen Jordan, DCCCA’s director of the regional prevention center, usually gives education presentations on the dangers of alcohol and other drugs, but says she’s now been asked to talk about meth again, to a group of Native American students who have been increasingly coming into contact with the drug when it is smuggled across the border from Mexico and into Native American reservations.
“We haven’t had a lot of requests for that, except recently,” Jordan said. “I’m hoping it’s kind of died down.”
Riggs said he hopes so, too, but the evidence suggests things will get worse here before they get better. The destruction caused by meth is something he’s seen before, having come to Lawrence in 2002 from Cherokee County in southeastern Kansas, one of the areas hit the hardest by the meth epidemic. His specialty there was investigating and clearing out meth labs, often homes that had become uninhabitable, and fire hazards, from toxic chemicals.
“There would be kids in these places. I saw it a lot,” he said. “I’m just kind of laying back and waiting, when and if it comes,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t, but I think it will.”