Return of meth means danger for users, police and others

Methamphetamine has made a colossal return to north central Ohio, leaving its users in strung-out confusion and police officers on high alert.

"They’ll stay up for days on end, and that does strange things to a person," said Shelby police Chief Lance Combs of those who smoke, snort, inject or swallow the drug.

Officers across the region started seeing meth more frequently last year after a nearly half-decade stretch of fighting the use of heroin and other opioids. Now that they're almost equal in popularity with addicts, police aren't sure where the trend will go this summer.

"This stuff can change on a dime," Combs said. "It’s a business, really."

Meth is 12 times more common now than just a couple of years ago, according to Lt. Joe Petrycki of the Mansfield Police Department, who is also the commander of METRICH — a drug task force covering 10 counties, including Richland, Crawford and Marion.

METRICH collected 109 grams of meth in 2015, 603 grams in 2016 and 1,388 grams in 2017, Petrycki said.

"Based on the stats we've seen so far, I can see it continuing to be an issue," Petrycki said.

Most of the meth METRICH has found recently wasn't produced in local meth labs.

"A lot of it is being brought in by the cartels," Petrycki said. "It's really good — it's crystal clear."

Officers suspect the drug has been marketed to compete with heroin sales, making it a temporarily less-expensive option for drug users. Combs has already noticed the effects of the paradigm shift — there have only been three opioid overdoses in Shelby during the first three months of 2018, compared to seven overdoses during the first quarters of both 2016 and 2017.

The reduction in overdoses doesn't make officers' jobs any easier, though. The volatility of people who are high on meth can make police work even more dangerous, according to Crawford County Sheriff Scott Kent.

"They can be combative and paranoid — the street term is called tweaking — which certainly creates an officer-safety issue," Kent said.

The unpredictability of meth users is clear to every officer in the region. Combs recalled a man who had been awake for three days from using meth and was hallucinating severely.

"He believed people were trying to kill him, so he was out walking around town with a baseball bat," Combs said.

Then there was a man officers found lying outside his house in the middle of the night, watching his neighbor's house. The man warned the officers to be careful of the people robbing the house next door and was concerned the thieves would try to hurt someone.

"Of course, there was nobody there," Combs said. "We are very concerned when people are hallucinating."

Local production of meth has started to increase as well, even though homemade meth isn't as strong as the meth sold by the cartels. Kent said a newer production method — known as "shake and bake" on the streets — allows meth labs to be much smaller and portable.

"Instead of having this elaborate lab and garbage laying all over the place in a woods or under a bridge, we’re seeing where they’re making it in plastic pop bottles right in the trunk of a car," Kent said.

The smaller labs are still dangerous for anyone in the area, as they can blow up or burn just like the larger labs that were common a decade ago.

"You have to be careful around it, real careful," Kent said. "Even when we encounter it during a drug raid, we’re securing the area and waiting until we have the trained team come in to neutralize it and dispose of it for us."

"They'll want it so bad," Petrycki said. "They'll do just about anything to get it."

Originally published in the News Journal on March 28, 2018.

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