View attachment 24299 EVANSVILLE — State Department of Correction Inmate Stephen Hatton is begging the state legislature to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.
Hatton, serving 14 years on two methamphetamine manufacturing convictions out of Vanderburgh County, said restricting the sale of the cold medication will curb the manufacturing of meth across the state. And if legislators chose to ignore it, expect trouble, he said.
"It's like a wildfire," he said. "It'll be the whole state of Indiana before long. I know so — it's like wildfire."
Hatton said his addiction to meth occurred only because pseudoephedrine didn't require a prescription.
The solution may seem obvious in Evansville, which has among the highest number of meth reports in the state, but there are no guarantees of a legislative solution. But the scores of the portable, volatile and toxic one-pot labs found in Evansville have prompted Mayor Lloyd Winnecke to support a proposed law that would allow local governments to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.
Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann said the bill now before the Indiana General Assembly may not pass.
"It's a hard sell for some legislators up in Indianapolis because they don't have the same problem we do," Hermann said. "Up there, they're dealing with cocaine, so it's hard for them to understand."
As politicians debate the issue, members of the Evansville Police Department Meth Suppression Unit responds to calls around the clock.
"You're definitely married to your job," said Mike Kennedy, of the department's meth suppression unit. "If you're on call that night, there's a good chance you'll get called out."
The presence of meth labs in Evansville surfaced only within the past few years. Posey County Sheriff Greg Oeth said meth labs began popping up in his jurisdiction less than a decade ago. In those early days, the acrid smell of anhydrous ammonia kept meth cooks hiding out in uninhabited areas such as in the river bottoms. The contraptions they used to cook the drug required space, expertise, and plenty of the anhydrous ammonia, which normally was stolen from nearby farms.
But then users learned how to make meth by replacing the anhydrous ammonia with various hydrogen chloride gas generators. Mixing those chemicals with lithium from batteries, camping fuel and pseudophedrine in a plastic soda bottle yielded a much more potent variation of the drug, Oeth said.
The method, known on the street as "one-pot," was more portable and allowed producers to seek refuge in more urban settings — where the ingredients were readily available at the corner drugstore, he said.
The recipe and mechanics for the one-pot method may vary slightly, but one ingredient remains the same — pseudophedrine pills.
Oeth said he has heard in law enforcement circles that 50 percent of one-pot labs will self-ignite or explode. Either water will react with the ultra-volatile lithium, or the bottle will explode under pressure.
"It's coming out of the rural areas, and it's going into the apartment complexes and cars," Oeth said. "It's even harder to detect now."
Oeth said his deputies have actually seen a drop in manufacturing cases. Unlike larger meth labs, the one-pot versions don't produce the same amount of odor.
"They don't have to get out into the elements and find that spot and hopefully not be detected," he said. "The odors aren't as prevalent, and the amount isn't there."
View attachment 24300 Indiana State Police Sgt. Niki Crawford said Vanderburgh County sees a higher amount of meth lab reports than other parts of the state, but it is definitely not alone. The majority of the 92 counties in the state have generated meth lab reports. One of the few that have not is Lake County, Crawford said.
"And the only reason for that is because it's so close to Chicago and sees a lot of other drugs like cocaine and heroin," she said, adding that otherwise, "It's pretty much a statewide trend."
Roughly 74 percent of the labs reported to state police as of November last year were one-pot labs, she said.
Crawford said ISP first started collecting meth reports in the 1990s, and they normally surfaced from areas around Terre Haute and Evansville. Vanderburgh County is still among the top counties for meth reports in the state, along with areas near Columbus and South Bend.
The Indianapolis area also receives a fair number of reports, she said.
Crawford said the introduction of the one-pot lab brought the drug to urban areas like Evansville by 2010. Hermann said before that, people would make the drug in sparsely populated areas, spend time in Evansville over the weekend and either share or sell their product. That trend created a base of addicts looking for an easier way to get high, and the one-pot method became the answer. The abundance of stores in town selling ingredients such as pseudoephedrine made the old-fashioned labs obsolete, he said.
"You could walk into a drugstore and pick up anything you needed to make meth," Hermann said. "You could pick up the pills, we use a lot of Coleman camp fuel here — all of those ingredients you could walk in and get.
But the one-pot method yields a far more powerful yield than larger labs. And within about three hits, the user needs more to fend off spiraling depression, he said.
The homemade meth also cuts out the middleman trying to make a profit. Much like cocaine, a dealer may add to his supply to make it last longer. The one-pot method assures the user is getting the strongest dose possible, Hermann said.
"We do have some of the drug coming from Mexico, but not a lot of people like it because it isn't as strong as what they make or what their neighbor makes," he said.
At least 113 meth labs were reported to local law enforcement last year, an increase from the 95 reported in 2010. Last year's numbers are expected to increase as state agencies make their final tabulations, he said.
A recent walk with the four officers assigned to the Evansville Police Department Meth Suppression Unit made last year's tally seem low. Within an hour, the officers found 19 of the mini-labs along a stretch of railroad tracks south of Oak Hill Cemetery, which equals one incident. At first glance, the labs looked like bags filled with trash. But inside each bag was a toxic mix still volatile enough to start a fire. At least two of the bagged labs began to smoke after being carried from the railroad tracks to an area where officers could secure them for transport and destruction.
"That's the chemical reaction," Detective Brock Hensley said, his voice muffled by the large gas mask he wore. "This easily has enough to start up again if it wanted."
Last year, Hensley, two other detectives and a sergeant were brought together to form the department's first line of defense against the drug. Investigating meth is more challenging because its distribution does not follow the same patterns as drugs like cocaine or marijuana. Investigations involving those drugs may take on the form of a pyramid, and the ultimate goal is to get to the highest distributor, he said.
The distribution of meth once carried the same characteristics.
"You had four guys who were cooking it, and they were gods," he said. "Now, you ask them where they got it, and they'll say, 'my neighbor across the street' or 'someone at home.'"
State legislators in 2005 approved a system that required drugstores to record anyone who bought pseudoephedrine. But all of the information gathered was handwritten and difficult to research. As of Jan. 1, the state upgraded the system so that any purchases made by one person were tracked electronically and limited the amount one person could get. But with the popularity of meth booming, one-pot cooks found a way around the system, said Detective Paul Jacobs, who also is a part of the police department's meth suppression team.
Cooks now will pay people top dollar to purchase the medication. Reports have surfaced of people making a $1,000 a month buying pseudoephedrine for meth cooks. To officers, those people are known as "smurfs."
"You've got enough of this medication being sold to feed a family of six every day," Jacobs said. "There is no way one person could need that much."
The volume of reports to the meth suppression team last year already have resulted in more than $100,000 in overtime, and much of that could have been spent cleaning up the one-pot labs.
"Oh, we easily could spend all day and all night picking up labs," he said. "But while we're picking them up they're just making more and tossing them out the window."
The officers recalled a time when two children playing in a patch of woods began kicking around a mysterious bag that turned up to be a used one-pot lab.
"Those kids didn't realize it but they were breathing in toxic fumes," Jacobs said.
Last year, police said locations such as the West Side Walmart were busy with "smurfs" supplying dealers. Within the first 10 days of the year, those numbers dropped significantly. As of last week, an area Walgreen's was the most popular, with 383 purchases made, according to data provided by the department. During that same time period, the West Side Walmart sold 176.
During a recent detail, a couple stopped for questioning by the meth suppression team said a man at another Walgreen's was asking customers to buy pseudoephedrine for him. Hensley raced to the location, but missed the suspect by about 10 minutes.
Where that suspect would have taken the pills is harder to track during the colder months. Although the odor from a one-pot lab is not nearly as bad as the larger versions, the cold keeps people inside with windows shut. During the summer, the smell is easier to detect while police are on patrol.
That's how officers came to arrestHatton.
Vanderburgh County Sheriff's deputies on July 5 picked up an odor coming from a vacant apartment in the third block of Washington Avenue. Inside, deputies found Hatton, 31, who admitted to making meth inside. He also told them he was participating in the county's drug court program after being convicted on meth manufacturing charges filed in October 2010.
Now, Hatton is serving up to 14 years in the Putnamville, Ind., Correctional Facility.
He agreed to an interview with The Courier & Press to share his experience of meth in Evansville and said the intense high from the drug and the ease of finding its ingredients made the drug irresistible.
Hatton's criminal record mirrored the story he told. Court records show he was arrested in 2007 and 2010 on charges of public intoxication. But later on in 2010, he was arrested on meth manufacturing charges, and again last year.
Hatton said he found help in the community in battling alcoholism, but becoming hooked on meth was too easy.
A couple years ago, he was homeless and found himself in a 12-step support group. After less than a year of sobriety, Hatton said he was attending classes at Ivy Tech and earning top marks. He also was an aspiring sous chef who helped open a restaurant in Boonville, Ind.
But then he tried meth for the first time.
"I knew some people who were doing it, so I tried it, and it was hard not to want to do it again," he said.
Hatton said his introduction to the drug also brought him into the circles of people who knew how to cook the drug.
"I was always inquisitive, and that got me thinking, 'why not cut out the middleman?'" he said.
Illicit meth labs were abundant around Evansville, he said, particularly around Jimtown, spots along Fulton Avenue and near Mesker Park Zoo. The high from the drug creates a sort of tunnel vision that leaves safety at the bottom of any list.
"When you're doing it and you're high, your safety concerns kind of go out the window," he said. "That really raises the level with all the explosions and fires."
Hatton recalled one acquaintance who accidentally filled a one-pot lab with water: The result was a devastating fire, he said.
But more disturbing was the disregard for children, said Hatton, who is the father of a small child. He recalled many occasions when meth was being made while kids were playing only a few feet way.
"It really makes you sick to your stomach when you see three or four kids running around and you've got foils and pipes lying around, and all they're thinking about is cooking," he said. "I was always striving to not be that person, but I couldn't just say it wouldn't have happened."
Hatton said he would be relieved to know the sale of pseuphedrine had been restricted. Without it, the popularity of the drug only will grow in the state's urban areas.
"And Indianapolis is perfect because there are more places to hide and a lot more pharmacies to try," he said.
By Arek Sarkissian II
Posted January 21, 2012
Meth: Is drug unstoppable?