News: Full Speed Ahead

Police call meth labs Cincinnati's next drug menace

Sep 21, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Homemade is not risk-free. Meth labs are relatively simple to stock, profitable to operate and fraught with explosive hazards.

Jack senses something is wrong. The bar at T.G.I. Friday's, Northgate, is almost empty, except for a couple of men who keep looking his way. His supplier had spoken nervously, asking Jack to meet here — a public place — for the first time in the two years they have worked together. Now he is pressuring Jack to pick up the usual methamphetamine delivery from an unusual spot — his car.

After about 15 minutes, Jack has enough; he refuses the meth. As he leaves the restaurant, one of the men staring at him follows. In the parking lot, the man removes his hat.

"Freeze!" the officer shouts. Jack turns and sees the barrel of a 9-mm gun. Two officers had rushed from the restaurant.

They throw him on a car, handcuffing him. A police car pulls up, and the officers put Jack inside. It is over in about 20 seconds.

Jack's arrest will develop into one of the Tristate's largest meth busts ever.

Routine in the West and Southwest, meth busts are still relatively uncommon in Cincinnati. But if meth's eastward march continues, Ohio could be one of the next states plagued by the drug.

Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. James Wingo, a methamphetamine expert who has trained Cincinnati Police officers, knows from experience how the drug can speed into an area. In Missouri, meth-lab seizures skyrocketed from six in 1992 to more than 900 in 1999. California seized about 2,000 meth labs last year, he says. Busts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) increased from 334 meth labs in 1992 to 2,025 in 1999.

Law-enforcement officers shut down their first Cincinnati meth lab in April. On Aug. 22, Covington Police and the DEA discovered a lab they believe was used to make meth in a Pike Street apartment.

The best feeling ever
Methamphetamine — also known as meth, speed, crank, crystal meth, go fast and ice — is a type of amphetamine, an ingredient legal in diet pills and medications for attention-deficit disorder, says Alicia Aumentado, a hotline manager at the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center.

A meth high is "the best feeling I've ever felt," says Jack, now 26. (CityBeat is withholding Jack's identity at his request.) Meth made him feel confident, sharper and smarter. An average pool player, Jack could clear the table while on meth.

Meth mimics dopamine and norepiniphrine, chemicals the body uses to stimulate neural receptors, Aumentado says. The initial, euphoric rush lasts about half an hour, and the high can last six to 12 hours. The drug liberates users from the desire to eat and sleep. As the effects begin to wear off, some users binge, trying to delay the inevitable crash. Jack says he stayed awake two weeks at a time, constantly using the drug.

Users can smoke, snort, inject or swallow meth, which is usually white or yellowish. The drug can be a powder, solid crystals or a liquid. If injected, meth takes effect immediately. If taken orally, there's a half-hour delay.

The user eventually reaches a point called "tweaking," according to the police trainers, when taking more meth will no longer produce a high. The user then has a tendency to become violent.

"As it wears off, it goes the other way — twice as much," Jack says.

Depression, hallucinations and paranoia marked Jack's meth lows. He recalls hearing voices in his head and becoming "almost schizophrenic."

When the user finally crashes, he undergoes two or three days of intense cravings, prolonged sleep, sweating and abdominal pain and cramps, says Sharon French, nurse manager for the Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment, downtown.

"There's a lot of risks because of the way it works," Aumentado says.

Meth can lead to seizures and cause problems for the heart, kidneys, blood pressure and liver. Meth stimulates every muscle and every organ, placing stress on the heart, generating heat and increasing body temperature, which makes muscle tissue break down. Think of the body as an engine, Aumentado says.

"Get the engine going too fast or too hard," she says. "You can have a blow out."

As meth stimulates the brain, the drug also damages it, Wingo says.

"You can't feel good any more without the use of methamphetamine," he says.

The drug is a popular choice at all-night parties and raves. Some use it to counteract the tiring effects of alcohol and marijuana, Aumentado says.

Jack says meth is increasingly popular, in part because more people know about it, and because it's comparatively cheap.

A hundred dollars will buy about a gram of cocaine or meth, but the body metabolizes meth much more slowly than other drugs, Wingo says. A cocaine high might last 20 minutes, but a meth high can last hours.

Meth is psychologically addictive and difficult to stop using. Withdrawal can lead to severe depression.

Jack doesn't look back fondly on his meth use.

"I definitely regret it," he says. "I'm glad that I got caught, and glad that I went to jail. You definitely don't ever want to try it."

Dr. Dennis Weis believes treatment — not police action — will curb the use of meth. Weis is the medical director of the Powell Chemical Dependency Center, Des Moines.

"Treatment stemmed the tide of the cocaine epidemic," he says, "but no one seems willing to do that here."

Jack says he no longer uses meth, but he still lives with its effects.

"In some ways, it has permanently affected me," he says.

He now avoids such stimulants as coffee, because as they wear off, they make him mildly depressed and nervous.

Soldiers on speed
Meth has been around for more than 80 years, but its use didn't become epidemic until the government tried to eradicate it.

A Japanese scientist first synthesized meth in 1919, according to a police-training booklet. In the 1930s, doctors used the drug to treat narcolepsy, schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson's disease. During World War II, American, Japanese and German forces used meth on their own troops to keep them awake and alert, according to Wingo.

By the 1960s, motorcycle gangs controlled the production and distribution of meth. Using the Phenyl-2-Propanone (P2P) method, they created a form of the drug 40 to 60 percent pure, a formula that produces such visible side effects as shakes, tremors and stomach cramps.

In order to cut back meth production, Congress passed the Comprehensive Chemical Control Act of 1986, restricting the sale of key ingredients in the P2P process, Wingo says.

Working to keep up with demand, meth makers discovered the ephedrine-reduction method, which uses over-the-counter cold medicine and other common items to produce a purer form of the drug, without the shakes and cramps of the older method. The high is not the only effect that the new method renders more potent.

"The addiction is quicker, faster, stronger," Wingo says.

Today much of the meth in the United States comes through Mexico, where bulk ephedrine isn't regulated. Suppliers smuggle the base chemicals or the meth into the U.S. Additionally, the smaller labs popping up around the country are difficult to detect because the base chemicals have legal uses. Meth recipes are readily available on the Internet and by word of mouth.

Meth labs come with a myriad of hazards, including poisonous gases such as phosphine and hydrogen cyanide; danger of explosion from broken valves on containers, incorrect pressure and flammable chemicals; and byproducts from the production process. Making one pound of meth produces five to six pounds of chemical waste and a strong chemical odor.

Because of all the dangers associated with meth labs, law-enforcement officers have to be especially careful when raiding and closing them. The Cincinnati Police Division brought Wingo to Longworth Hall for two days in June to train about 60 SWAT team members, the Street Corner Unit and other officers.

A full-time narcotics officer, Wingo began training officers in Missouri a few years ago and has since conducted sessions about twice monthly from Hawaii to Florida to New York.

"It's getting busier," he says.

As meth spreads east, law enforcement is heeding the warnings of Western states.

"Methamphetamine hit us like a truck," says Charles Stocking, a Kansas City police officer who helped with the Cincinnati training session.

In Cincinnati, police see the potential for meth use and meth labs to skyrocket, as they have in other areas. It's a "problem that's on the horizon," says Lt. Howard Rahtz, assistant police-academy director. The training in June was one way police are trying to prepare, he says.

Meth labs have taken some areas by surprise. In western Kentucky, labs have proliferated dramatically. In 1999, officers raided 76 labs in that part of the state. Through the end of June, officers have already seized 126 meth labs this year.

"The extent of it did kind of surprise me," says Steve Reed, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky. "It's more ingrained than you realize."

Reed says most raids have been in the rural, far-western counties, where manufacturers have access to tanks of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be used to make meth.

"I look for it to move to the eastern part of the state," Reed says.

Reed hopes to reduce the spread of meth labs as much as possible.

"We're going to war with this," he says.

The battle will be on three fronts. First is increased prosecution, with prosecutors more likely to take cases involving small amounts of the drug.

Second is a stepped-up effort to educate residents about meth through TV and radio advertisements, billboards and flyers at schools. Speakers will visit schools in every district to talk to eighth-graders and high-school students.

"We don't want their first education to come from a friend that tells them all the positives," Reed says.

A meth sermon is also in the works. In one weekend, 400 clergy will preach to congregations about the dangers of meth.

Finally, Reed says, prosecutors will incorporate treatment into their casework, connecting meth users who want to escape the drug with access to rehabilitation resources.

The potential danger goes beyond the health of a meth user, Reed warns. Meth labs pose hazards for the non-using public.

"We have had explosions here in the Western District," he says. "If you haven't had that, you will."

Paying the price
It is January 1996. An investigation by the Regional Enforcement Narcotics Unit, made up of officers from the Cincinnati Police Division and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, catch Jack and 12 others in his meth ring. The raid nets 1.5 lbs. of meth — still one of the largest amounts seized in Hamilton County, according to Steve Barnett, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.

The investigation of Jack's meth network leads to the seizure of 3.5 pounds of meth in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Eight of the 13 arrests are in Cincinnati, two in Los Angeles, two in Las Vegas and one in Minnesota, Barnett says. All but one, a Los Angeles resident, are convicted.

Jack's conviction is for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, earning him a sentence of one year and one day in federal prison. Eligible for time off for good behavior, he gets out 23 days early. Jack believes he got a light sentence because he was never actually caught with the drug, and did not accept the package the day he was set up.

Jack knows he no longer wants life on meth, but the desire to change is not always enough.

"How do you back out when you're clearing $4,000 a week just to drop off a package?" he writes in an essay for a college class.

Jack first used meth as a 17-year-old high-school senior. He later began selling it with the help of a friend who had a steady supply. For almost two years, he received anywhere from eight ounces to one pound per week. After using some himself, he sold the rest or handed it over to three or four sellers working for him.

Jack was using about three to five grams of meth a day when he was arrested — enough to last three to five other people a week, he says. Following his arrest, Jack went without the drug for the first time in 18 months. He slept for five days straight, getting up only to use the restroom.

"I turned my life around in jail," he says.

While Jack was in jail, his daughter was born.

"I was on the phone and could hear her cry," he says. "I started to think how badly I wanted to be there to be with this child."

He saw his child for the first time about two months later.

"I started thinking how this girl would feel if she were old enough to comprehend that her father was not there for her and that he was in prison," Jack says. "I didn't want to be a father that my child would be ashamed of, but a father that she would respect and be proud of."

Soon after his release, Jack moved to a halfway house, seeing his daughter as much as possible. He then got a full-time job, simultaneously studying as a full-time student. He now works in a professional field, which is as much detail as he wants to reveal. Jack doesn't talk much with the others who were arrested with him.

There are no reliable statistics on local meth use. But as labs move east, many people are not optimistic about the future.

"It's as good now as it's ever going to be," Wingo says. "We're never, ever, ever going to get rid of meth labs." ©