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Police get better at finding drug production sites

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A record number of methamphetamine labs were discovered in Johnson County last year, as police have gotten better at spotting signs that the drug is being made and tracking down the people making it.

Police found 25 meth labs in Johnson County in 2012, the highest among all counties in central Indiana, and more than 1,700 statewide, according to Indiana State Police statistics.

Both numbers were records, and part of the increase is because police can more easily recognize the signs of a meth lab, including chemical smells and empty cold medicine packaging. Residents are making more methamphetamine because they can more easily make the drug in small amounts and with items they can buy at local stores.

Meth labs are more commonly found in rural areas. Residents in rural areas don’t have easy access to other drugs, and nearby interstates allow residents to buy supplies in urban areas and bring them back home to make meth, said Tom Egler, State Police meth suppression unit member.

In Johnson County, all of the meth labs found in 2012 were in areas with Franklin, Edinburgh and Trafalgar addresses. The southern part of the county also borders Bartholomew County, which ranks sixth-highest in the state for the number of meth labs found. Johnson County ranks 22nd among Indiana’s 92 counties, according to state police.

Meth labs are a concern for police, not only because of the drug, but because the chemicals used and the process to make the drug can cause explosions, fires or damage to homes and neighborhoods.

Methamphetamine use and production in Indiana has increased more than 1,000 percent since 2000. Before that, police discovered fewer than 100 meth labs each year. But the number of labs found by police steadily increased to more than 1,100 in 2005 before dropping when the state implemented its first laws restricting access to pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make meth. But after that, the number of meth labs found by police began increasing again, hitting a record high of 1,726 last year.

Johnson County has followed a similar trend, going from five labs in 2006 to 25 last year, according to state police.

One reason for the increase is that the drug can be made by mixing a smaller amount of ingredients in a plastic bottle or glass jar, instead of the more involved and lengthy process that included heating the chemicals for a long time. In 2012, 81 percent of meth labs discovered statewide were those “one-pot” type of labs, according to state police.

“The one-pot method is quicker, easier. They don’t make quite as much at one time, but they can go to Walmart and buy all the supplies,” Egler said.

For example, Edinburgh police arrested two men this year after an officer saw them walking outside a vacant factory. Police said they were carrying a jar with meth-making chemicals in it, and officers later found they were mixing chemicals in the woods near a golf course.

In recent years, meth users and makers also are forming small groups where different people buy the supplies needed to make the drug and the group shares the meth they make, said Indiana State Police Sgt. Mike Poles, supervisor for meth suppression. That can make it more difficult for police to track down meth labs because it takes more time to find out who is leading the group and where they are making the drug.

People making meth typically don’t buy supplies in the same area they’re making the drug, because a pharmacist or hardware shop owner is more likely to take notice and contact police.

As police find meth labs and arrest the people making the drug, more groups form to replace them, Egler said.

And in rural areas, like southern Johnson County, drug users don’t have as many options for where to buy drugs, which makes producing meth themselves seem like a better option, Egler said.

But police also are finding more meth labs because they are becoming better at tracking them. For example, in Delaware and Madison counties, police formed a new meth suppression unit and found twice as many meth labs in just one year, Poles said. Johnson County has officers who work on drug cases and narcotics, but not exclusively with meth.

Officers have more experience to notice the signs of a meth lab, police said.

“I think the officers have learned to detect meth and the habits of those who use it and produce it,” Edinburgh Police Chief David Mann said.

Tips from neighbors who smell chemicals or see suspicious activity near their homes can help police. The majority of meth lab cases Edinburgh police investigate start with a tip from a neighbor, Mann said.

Police also find items used to make meth while making traffic stops or responding to calls at homes. Spotting discarded cold medicine boxes, batteries, rubber tubing or hazy plastic bottles can allow an officer to investigate and find a meth lab, Franklin Police Lt. Kerry Atwood said. Franklin officers have found meth labs during a traffic stop after noticing a box of Sudafed in the back seat of the car, he said.

Police consider meth labs to be a danger to the community, especially since when bottles are used, they are prone to explosion or fire because of the chemicals and pressure that builds inside the container, Poles said.

Even empty bottles can cause a long-term danger since residue and gas from the reaction can linger for several weeks, Poles said.

“You can potentially be exposed to something that’s corrosive or harmful to your respiratory system. These things lay there and the vessels of these things are compromised after a while and they start leeching into the soil around it and start killing the area around it,” Poles said.

Efforts to make it harder to buy ingredients used to make meth haven’t slowed the use and production of the drug in the state, Poles said.

Mann isn’t expecting meth to disappear until police and state lawmakers can find a better way to restrict access to ingredients.

“Drugs often are cyclical and one is in vogue, and a year later something else takes it place. The thing about meth is they’re able to produce it themselves with the precursors. I suspect there will be some long-range life to this particular drug because of that,” Mann said.

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