Political courage crimps meth production

By Brian A. Howey

We had been the Hoosier State. The Crossroads of America, heart of the corn belt and the center of the basketball universe. Three years ago, we became something sinister. It was “Indiana: The Methamphetamine State!”

The statistics were appalling. According to the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, between 2013 and 2015, Indiana had dismantled 4,477 meth labs and rescued 1,104 children living in meth lab environments. Over the corresponding time period, Indiana had seen a 32 percent increase in homicides, a 26 percent increase in abuse and neglect reports to the Department of Child Services, and a 90 percent increase in misdemeanor theft.

The collateral damage was appalling. In addition to the abused kids, first responders like cops, firefighters and code enforcers suffered chemical injuries in meth labs. Mayors were seeing dozens of homes and hotel rooms contaminated by the insidious chemical taint that comes with clandestine meth production.

There was inertia at the Statehouse as governors and legislative leaders were slow to move, some fearing the wrath and political contributions from the home health consumer products industry.

There were others, like prosecutors Dustin Houchin of Washington County, Mike Steiner of Martin County, Jeffrey Arnold in Delaware County and Vanderburgh County’s Nick Hermann, Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel, Kendallville Police Chief Rob Wiley and a several legislators — most notably State Rep. Ben Smaltz of Auburn, State Sen. Randy Head of Logansport and House Speaker Brian Bosma — who had had enough.

In December 2015, as Smaltz and Head geared up for a tough fight in the upcoming session, Chief Wiley explained that while 362 children had been removed from meth manufacturing homes the previous year, “There are about 10 times that many,” meaning that another 3,600 kids or so are living in squalid, dangerous and lethal conditions that authorities haven’t reached. Prosecutors like Steiner were telling me that only a small percentage of labs were on police radar.

In 2016, Smaltz and Head forged a compromise on what would become Senate Enrolled Act 80, which essentially put pharmacists as the gatekeeper of pseudoephedrine, the chemical found in products like Sudafed that is the key meth ingredient. When a person (known as a “smurf”) would come in and try to buy PSE products in large quantities, SEA 80 empowered the pharmacists to say no.

The resistance from the industry was that SEA 80 would make it tough for folks with allergies and sinus conditions to get their Sudafed. The reforms, they said, wouldn’t work. Health committee chairs Mike Young in the Senate and Cindy Kirchhofer in the House attempted to block the bills in February 2016, saying there wasn’t enough time on the schedule.

This is when Speaker Bosma stepped in, signaling behind the scenes that the legislation needed to be heard on the House floor. His clout was essential.

State Rep. Steve Davisson, a pharmacist from Salem, had been an early opponent of the bill. Smaltz and others convinced him otherwise. When Gov. Mike Pence signed the law in March 2016, Davisson predicted, “I think we’re going to see a major reduction in meth labs in this state. I’ve talked to a lot of chain-store pharmacists who said they wanted to be able to deny a sale, but their bosses wouldn’t let them.”

Last week, Smaltz announced the early impacts. Indiana State Police reports 254 meth lab busts occurred from January through June, representing a 58 percent drop from the 605 incidents during the same period in 2016.

In addition, the number of children removed from meth lab environments went down nearly 68 percent from 108 to 35 cases. Over the past two years, child removals from Indiana meth labs declined approximately 81 percent.

Smaltz said more children were removed from meth labs during a single month in 2015 than the first half of 2017.

During the last six months of 2016 (the law took effect on July 1 of that year), meth labs declined by 38 percent, going from 1,452 in 2015 and 943 in 2016.

“Because of the hard work of law enforcement and pharmacy staff in combination with statewide meth reforms, Indiana has seen a significant drop in meth lab busts,” Smaltz said.

“You’ve got to give a head nod to the pharmacists,” Smaltz said. “They make the decisions on whether is this the right thing to sell to somebody. The legislative fix helps. When you look at the 184 kids found in meth labs a year ago, and 35 this year, that’s 149 lives that meth wasn’t poisoning.”

Smaltz acknowledged heroin as a potential factor, saying, “Addicts are always going to go for what’s the cheapest option.”

Smaltz said that while there will be short-term gains, it won’t necessarily solve the problem. “We’ve seen drops before, notably in 2006 when the federal Combat Meth Act was passed. But addicts figured out a way around it,” he said.

“It’s like a dam holding back water. You fix it, you watch it and the water will come through somewhere else. Some of those things we’re watching now, heroin, prescription painkillers. We’ll just have to adjust.”

Hoosiers will need considerably more courage and leadership in the coming years.

Brian A. Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.