COLUMBIA CITY — The growing epidemic of methamphetamine use can be measured in dollar amounts by law enforcement and drug awareness organizations.
But sometimes, the cost has no price tag.
Two deaths in as many months in Whitley County, both suspected to be related to the illegal drug, have police working feverishly to curtail manufacturing operations.
“It is frustrating because we are more reactive rather than proactive,” said Whitley County Sheriff Mark Hodges.
“But that’s due to the nature of the crime.”
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, methamphetamine is a highly-addictive central nervous system stimulant that can be injected, snorted, smoked or ingested orally.
Anyone who’s ever seen billboards with photos of meth users, complete with rotten teeth and the sunken eyes of a near-corpse, might wonder what the appeal of the drug was in the first place.
“It’s about as good a feeling as you can have,” said Det. Bill Brice with Whitley County’s Drug Task Force. “It releases the dopamine in your system.”
Brice’s job is to know the effects of the drug on the human body, as well as being familiar with the culture of those who make or use meth.
The ONDCP said meth users feel a short, yet intense “rush” when the drug is initially administered. The immediate effects of methamphetamine include increased activity and decreased appetite.
The drug has limited medical uses for the treatment of narcolepsy, attention deficit disorders, and obesity, according to the ONDCP website.
To battle those who make, or “cook” the drug, state and federal lawmakers have targeted some of the ingredients, or “precursors” that go into the manufacturing process.
The most recognizable ingredient in the process is the prescription drug Sudafed, or pseudoephedrine.
“Locally, investigators work hard on identifying individuals who purchase more Sudafed than is lawful,” said Hodges.
Brice said an entire counterculture has risen up around the drug.
“Many people using methamphetamine are members of ‘smurf’ groups,” said Brice.
“Each cook has several people who purchase the needed items to make the meth, as payment they are given either cash or a portion of the end product.”
Brice said this system makes it more difficult for law enforcement to identify people who are purchasing the items.
“They may only each get one of the items,” he said.
“People in these smurf groups will not bring attention to their group by either going outside their group or by selling outside their group,” he said.
“Most users of methamphetamine are not trying to get rich selling their product. “They are trying to feed their habit.”
Police say one of their most valuable tools in battling the meth problem is an informed public.
For that reason, law enforcement is ultra-generous when it comes to revealing what to look for regarding either clandestine meth labs or meth addicts.
“Residents should be aware of strong odors such as cat urine, ether or ammonia,” said Brice.
“Watch for high traffic activity, usually with short visits, especially at night.”
Brice said meth cooks also tend to have covered windows, a habit of not putting out their trash in favor of burning their trash and secretive behavior.
Brice said people addicted to meth often have a decline in personal hygiene, rotting teeth, sores on their skin (normally arms, legs and face) and sometimes stay awake for days.
“Also look for weight loss and dilated pupils,” he said.
“The physical effects of meth use are typically very prominent,” said Hodges.
Between March and December of 2010, the Whitley County Drug Task Force made 154 arrests and discovered 18 meth labs and 32 dumps. A dump is described as the discarding of by-products from the cooking process.
“There are also concerns about dump sites,” said Brice. “Each pound of meth produces 5-6 pounds of toxic waste.”
Brice cautions against picking up trash which looks suspicious.
“These can be dangerous, and moving them can re-activate the process which can release toxic fumes,” he said.
“Things to look for are empty pseudoephedrine blister packs, camping fuel containers, open instant cold packs, lithium battery pieces, coffee filters, pop bottles containing any type of granular substance or a piece of tubing extending from the cap.”
The most recent meth-related incident in the county may be tied to the death of a five-month-old girl, although autopsy results are pending and no determination as to cause of death has been made.
In that case, which happened Jan. 3, charges of meth-making have been filed against Travis A. Wonderly, 21, and Janel M. Creech, 36.
No arrests have been made. Wonderly is believed to be at large while Creech is undergoing psychological evaluation.
On Dec. 3, a suspected meth lab exploded at Miami Village Mobile Home Park, killing 24-year-old Alecia L. Stine of Columbia City.