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Posted on Sun. Feb. 26, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Allen now ranks as meth hot spot

One-pot labs proliferating in city

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It’s an undesirable distinction for Allen County.

The largely urban jurisdiction has, for the first time, landed in the top 10 for meth lab seizure totals among Indiana counties.

Law enforcement officials believe Allen County’s rank – a 10th-place tie with Noble County, with 37 labs – is due to the prevalence of the one-pot or shake-and-bake method that allows meth cooks to more easily infiltrate cities like Fort Wayne.

First Sgt. Niki Crawford, who commands the Indiana State Police meth-suppression unit, said Allen County was one of the first areas where one-pot labs took root about three years ago. From 2009 to 2011, the number of labs discovered in the county, including those found in Fort Wayne, more than tripled, according to state police.

Last year, Indiana hit a record high of 1,437 labs, and with the seizures came 1,420 arrests, according to state police.

Indiana was third in the nation in lab seizures, behind Missouri in first and Tennessee in second, according to a recent Associated Press survey.

In northeast Indiana, meth maintains a secure foothold, while clandestine labs in known hot spots such as Noble and Kosciusko counties have been on the decline.

In Noble, where lab seizures went down by half last year, Sheriff Doug Harp believes the incarceration of meth makers has been a factor.

“We’ve had a lot of cooks that went by the wayside that are still in prison,” he said.

Harp would like to think the drop is also due to more understanding about the highly addictive stimulant.

“My hope is that people have seen the destruction within their own family or friends,” he said. “They’ve looked at what the drug has done, and there are fewer users.”

In 2010, Kosciusko County authorities seized 85 labs, the second highest in Indiana. In 2011, the county dipped to third place, with 58 labs.

DeKalb County, which has made the state’s top 10 list in past years, saw its number of lab seizures fall from a peak of 41 in 2009 to 12 in 2011. In other area counties last year, Steuben reported 15 lab seizures; Whitley, 8; Huntington, 6; Wells, 2; and Adams, 1.

Vanderburgh County – in southwest Indiana – remained the most active meth county with 116 labs reported, 11 more than in 2010.

Reactive mode

Last year, more than 30 of Allen County’s meth labs were found in Fort Wayne, and all of those employed the one-pot method, city narcotics Detective Bob Kirby said.

One-pot labs, which use a plastic bottle to brew the drug, lend themselves to urban settings because they’re compact and portable, allowing for meth production in homes, motel rooms and even vehicles.

Another advantage: One-pot labs don’t require anhydrous ammonia, a farm fertilizer, and consequently don’t create as many noticeable noxious fumes as traditional, more elaborate production methods.

Kirby said the Fort Wayne Police Department has been educating residents about meth, a step he believes has led to more reports of labs.

“We’ve reached out to a lot of neighborhood groups and shown them what to look for,” he said.

Six city police officers are specifically trained to deal with the hazardous chemicals found in labs. This preparedness aside, Kirby acknowledged that his department is in a reactive mode when it comes to investigating meth making.

“If we had more manpower, we could be proactive. We could start looking at people who are buying the pseudoephedrine at stores,” he said, referring to a key meth ingredient found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines such as Sudafed.

Kirby estimated that 10 percent of the meth in Fort Wayne comes from Southwestern states and Mexico, while the remaining 90 percent is made in local one-pot labs. Last year, more than 70 percent of Indiana’s labs used the one-pot method, according to state police.

It’s not uncommon for authorities to find several one-pot labs in a single location. On Feb. 7, Fort Wayne police discovered eight of them at a house southwest of downtown, and two people living there were arrested.

When multiple one-pot labs are seized during a raid, for statistical purposes, the Indiana State Police counts them as a single lab, Crawford said.

In Indiana homes where labs were found, 369 children were present. One child was killed as a result of meth production, and two others were injured. As for adults, one was killed and 51 injured, according to state police.

Of the state’s meth lab injuries since 2000, close to half have occurred in the past two years. Crawford links this trend to the rise in the use of one-pot labs, which are prone to explode and cause burns.

“Essentially, these people are making small bombs,” state police Sgt. Mike Toles said.

Electronic tracking

To buy medications that contain the meth precursor pseudoephedrine, Hoosiers must show identification, and their personal information is stored in a database. Purchases are limited to 3.6 grams a day and no more than 7.2 grams in any 30-day span.

Last year, the Indiana General Assembly approved a new real-time, electronic tracking program, known as NPLEx, or the National Precursor Log Exchange, that blocks illegal pseudoephedrine sales and provides investigators with data.

To skirt the restrictions, groups of “smurfs” have been buying pseudoephedrine for meth cooks in exchange for money or drugs. Authorities have had a difficult time cracking down on these illegal groups that, in some cases, consist of a dozen buyers, Crawford said.

“People know exactly when they can buy, and if the sale is blocked, they can get someone else to buy for them,” she said. “All we can do is track these smurf groups that are getting larger and larger and larger.”

Jim Acquisto, vice president of government affairs for Appriss Inc., the technology provider for NPLEx, has said one of the biggest advantages of the system is that it sees across state lines. This means smurfs and meth makers can’t just cross state borders to avoid Indiana’s pseudoephedrine limits.

Some law enforcement officers in Indiana believe the only way to put a serious dent in meth production would be to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. Oregon and Mississippi have done so with dramatic initial results. But a proposal to enact such a change in Indiana has not gained traction among lawmakers.

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