Washington County outpaces statewide meth trend

MARIETTA – Law enforcement officers are dealing with an increase in the number of people making their own methamphetamine.

With less than a month remaining in the fiscal reporting time frame, statewide meth lab incidents have already shot past the numbers for 2012, according to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The numbers, which are voluntarily sent to BCI by law enforcement agencies throughout the state, showed 607 meth labs discovered by law enforcement during the 2012 fiscal year, and 770 incidents as of Aug. 24 since the 2013 fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2012.

It’s the highest number since the bureau began keeping the statistics in 2005. Locally, the surge of meth labs has been even more pronounced, said Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

“Our numbers by the end of August were four times as high as they were in all of 2012,” he said.

Agents from the Major Crimes Task Force, which includes Morgan and Washington counties, are certified to safely dismantle the highly volatile components of a meth lab.

They did so three times in 2012. In 2013, they have handled eight labs in Washington County, one in Noble County, and two each in Morgan and Guernsey counties, according to figures from Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

The reason agencies have been finding more labs is likely twofold, suggested Scott Duff, special agent supervisor in charge of the meth and marijuana units for Ohio BCI.

“First, I think the manufacturing method that cooks are utilizing today is a quicker and easier process. Secondly, there are more people out there who know how to recognize the components because of the trainings we do,” he said.

BCI estimates that 95 percent of reported meth lab incidents involve the “one pot” method of making the drug.

Most of the ingredients used to “cook” the drug are common household items, such as lithium batteries, Coleman fuel and two-liter soda bottles, said Mincks.

An ingredient always necessary in the drug, the allergy medication pseudoephedrine, also is legal to purchase in controlled quantities.

“When people found out they could get all this stuff and shake it up and, presto, you have meth, it really became a problem,” Mincks said.

The proliferation of the one pot method started around two years ago, he said.

To further encourage would-be chemists, finding meth-making instructions can be as simple as an online search, said Warden.

“At one point, one of my officers came in and showed me a video. There was an actual YouTube video showing a girl going through the entire process. It took like 30 minutes,” he said.

Several steps are in place to combat the growing problem.

Fruth Pharmacy, a national chain with a store in Belpre, announced recently that it would be replacing some of its pseudoephedrine products with Nexafed, a drug designed to break down into an unusable mess when individuals try to extract the pseudoephedrine needed for meth.

In addition, a law that went into effect in June requires Ohio pharmacies to report purchase data to a nationwide database that law enforcement agencies can use to track individuals buying more than the legal amount of pseudoephedrine, said Duff.

“We have 450 local officers who have access to this database. So if they see (a certain individual) making frequent trips to two, three, four different pharmacies on consecutive days, we know he’s manufacturing meth,” he said.

While meth is a growing trend locally, it still has not overtaken the biggest drug problem – opiates, said Washington County Sheriff’s Office Major Brian Schuck, who oversees the Major Crimes Task Force.

“Heroin and prescription pills are the No. 1 problem. Right now there is so much opiate use. It’s just rampant,” he said.

Dealers are able to make big profits buying heroin in bigger metro areas such as Columbus and selling it locally at five times the price, he said.

What makes meth increasingly dangerous is that the after-products of its manufacture can still be highly volatile, said Schuck.

“I’ve been present before when an old lab ignited and caught fire on the porch,” he said.

That is why law enforcement warns individuals to stay away from strange discarded items and instead call the authorities, said Warden.

That is exactly what one Marietta family did earlier this year when they found not one, but five once-active meth containers discarded in their backyard, said Schuck.

“We have other counties reaching out to us to come in and help deactivate these labs. Obviously, meth is coming,” he said.