The once severe problem of methamphetamine manufacturing labs in Alaska has diminished greatly because of a 2006 state law targeting them, but that doesn't mean addicts can't get meth, state officials told legislators recently.
Meth now is being supplied mainly by Mexican drug traffickers, and it's a much higher grade than that made by Alaskans, most of whom operated out of homes and apartments in the Mat-Su Borough, officials said last week in giving a status report on methamphetamine to the House Judiciary Committee.
About 45 pounds of meth were seized in Alaska last year by the Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement, a part of Alaska State Troopers, and other agencies that it works with, including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the bureau. That was a record amount, more than five times the nearly 8 pounds seized in 2007 and again in 2008, bureau statistics show.
It's also more than what authorities were finding in raids before 2006, when in-state meth makers faced lighter sentences and had an easier time acquiring ingredients, according to bureau statistics.
The 2006 law increased penalties and limited the amount of non-prescription cold medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- key meth ingredients -- customers could buy. Stores must keep medicines like Sudafed behind the counter and customers must sign for them.
In 2005, the year before the law was passed, the trooper drug bureau and other agencies shut down 42 meth labs. Last year, nine labs were seized, said Capt. Keith Mallard, who oversees the Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement.
"This legislation has been very successful. The problem we're having now has changed to importation," Col. Audie Holloway, director of Alaska State Troopers, told lawmakers. As he tells his troopers, "the lines of geography have changed a little bit when it comes to drugs in Alaska. We basically share a border with Mexico."
The meth seizures last year included a record 23 pounds of meth that was hidden in an SUV on a barge headed to Anchorage in December. It originated in Mexico, according to authorities.
An Anchorage man, Jared Lisenby, pleaded guilty in June to a federal count of conspiring to distribute that meth. Wasilla resident Ricky Reese is awaiting trial, as are two others in Seattle. Reese, owner of Shooter's Billiards in Wasilla at the time he was arrested, is accused of showing up at a staged buy with a down payment of almost $100,000.
Troopers told lawmakers that people try to ship meth to Alaska in various ways, including Federal Express, UPS and, as in the above case, stashed in hidden compartments of vehicles coming up on barges or the ferry system.
"We get drugs through all kinds of modes of transportation brought in that originate in some fashion or another in Mexico or by the control of Mexican drug trafficking organizations," Holloway said.
The briefing was sought by state Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks. He chairs the Judiciary Committee, was the prime sponsor of the 2006 law and is a candidate for lieutenant governor. He turned the meeting over to Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, "in the interest of not politicizing this event."
"We're going to talk about shifting resources for various departments, including the Department of Public Safety, away from trying to stop meth lab production and toward the interdiction of methamphetamines," Ramras said.
Ramras said he recently learned that a couple who used to work for him at a Fairbanks restaurant both are "on the pipe." The woman prostituted herself for meth, he said. They have two young children. He's not sure if the family is still together but suspects they are, for now.
Troopers said they already are shifting their focus from in-state labs to importation. But to do more will either require more money or reducing another area of enforcement, Holloway said.
Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny told legislators that while the problem of meth labs in homes and apartments is easing, the new twist is meth in a bottle. People are making it in plastic soda bottles; some states report people are trying to do that even while driving down the road, and getting physically injured and burned.
"Have we improved? Have we decreased the use of methamphetamine or has it stayed the same or have we moved into a different drug?" Svobodny said. "It's really hard to tell."
Anchorage police are telling prosecutors that they are seeing less meth and more heroin when they make street arrests for crimes like prostitution, he said.
Still, substance abuse treatment centers have reported a 15 percent increase in people being treated for meth addiction, Joan Houlihan, a state behavioral health specialist, told legislators.
Meth is so addictive that most probably don't try to get clean on their own, but do so under threat of prison or losing their children, which could be related to the tougher provisions in the law, according to Houlihan.
Gatto, the Palmer legislator, questioned whether treatment works well enough to justify continued state support. Melissa Witzler Stone, director of the state Division of Behavioral Health, said treatment agencies are well trained in how to best reach addicts, but treatment is expensive.
State Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Republican who called into the hearing from Wrangell, asked whether the dealers were illegal immigrants.
Mallard responded that some of those involved were illegal and some were legal, but most are connected to Mexican traffickers.
Holloway suggested legislators follow Oregon's lead and require prescriptions for the cold medicines with the sought-after ingredients, to shut down meth labs entirely.
Ramras said his office was going to work on recommendations this fall.
By LISA DEMER
July 17th, 2010
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