Breaking bad again: meth makes deadly comeback
Posted May 16, 2018 3:10 p.m. EDT
DAYTON, Ohio -- Crystal meth has made a deadly comeback in the region at a time when the opioid epidemic already is responsible for an alarmingly high body count.
Last year, methamphetamine appeared as a factor in the cause of death statements for 50 people in Montgomery County, Ohio -- more than triple the number from 2016, according to Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger.
"We have seen an increase in methamphetamine," Harshbarger said.
Meth on its own is dangerous, but some users and dealers mix it with heroin or fentanyl to create a powerful but risky drug cocktail.
In the Midwest, more workers are testing positive for the drug, and some experts predict the crystal meth problem is going to get worse.
"Everything I hear is that it's not getting better -- it's getting worse," said Robert Carlson, a professor in the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University.
Methamphetamine use exploded in the 1990s and early 2000s, but then came a national crackdown on the drug.
State and federal laws put tough new restrictions on the sales of certain over-the-counter cold medicines that have pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient used to make the powerful stimulant.
Now in Ohio, retailers must check people's IDs and run their information through a database to ensure they cannot purchase more than a certain "reasonable" amount of pseudoephedrine.
Retailers are required to keep products containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter or in locked display cases that customers cannot directly access.
But meth is seeing a resurgence.
Last month, an inmate reportedly brough meth into an Ohio jail. A spill caused 14 corrections officers to become ill.
Earlier this month, a man at a Circle K gas station on East Fifth Street in Dayton refused to leave the store and was blocking customers from leaving, a police report states.
Police arrived and found the man swaying back and forth in the store, struggling to keep upright. He also had trouble answering officers questions and told them he was coming down from a bad acid trip.
The man was taken to the hospital and security found a plastic bag containing what what 1.6 grams of suspected crystal meth.
Police at Miami Valley Hospital in late March found a woman slumped over in a chair in a room in the emergency department, a police report states.
The woman told police she was sleepy after smoking marijuana. But a search of her purse found a white crystal substance police believed to be meth.
This year, Dayton police have found crystal meth during traffic stops, searches of suspected drug houses and during pat-downs of people detained on suspicion of other crimes.
The Dayton Police Department says it does not keep stats on specific types of drugs recovered during arrests.
Lt. Mark Ponichtera, the commander of Dayton Police Department's Narcotics Bureau, said the amount of meth recovered or seized by the police has remained consistent over the past few years.
But meth is showing up far more frequently in the toxicology reports of people who have died of drug overdoses in Montgomery County, according to the Montgomery County Poisoning Death Review report.
In 2010, meth was mentioned in the just 1 percent of the toxicology reports of victims of fatal overdoses in Montgomery County, the data show.
In 2015, meth mentions rose to 5 percent. In 2016, mentions doubled to 10 percent.
So far this year, there have been eight deaths in Montgomery County in which meth appeared on the cause of death statement of the deceased, the coroner's office said. It's possible other substances were listed on the death statements as well.
Meth poses "tremendous" cardiovascular risks and increased risks for heart attacks, and also it is highly addictive and can cause anxiety, confusion, insomnia, hallucinations, paranoia, violent behavior and severe tooth decay, said Carlson, the professor who is also the director of the Center for Interventions, Treatment and Addictions Research at Boonshoft School of Medicine.
Some local drug users say that meth's availability right now is nearly on par with heroin and fentanyl, and large-scale dealers apparently are trying to diversify their offerings on the drug market, Carlson said.
The widespread overdose problem -- a record 566 OD deaths in Montgomery County in 2017 -- has scared some people away from fentanyl and heroin, but users may be flocking to meth, Carlson said.
The popularity of individual illicit drugs tend to rise and fall over time, owing to availability, prices and other factors, experts said.
Drug users sometimes intentionally use meth with heroin or fentanyl. Dealers sometimes lace the opiates with stimulants or vice versa because their customers like the high.
In Montgomery County, the number of fatal overdoses in which methamphetamine and heroin were both mentioned in the toxicology reports increased to 12 cases in 2016, up from 5 the previous year. Seven percent of fatal overdose cases in the county in 2016 mentioned both illicit fentanyl and meth.
And there's more evidence that meth is back.
In Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, meth positivity in work-related drug tests increased 167 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to data released from from Quest Diagnostics, a national leader in drug testing for employers.
The company's "positivity rate" is the share of employment-related drug tests that come back positive for drugs.
The meth positivity rate in urine testing declined between 2005 and 2008, and then plateaued between 2008 and 2012, according to Quest.
The rate has surged in the last five years.
So where is the meth coming from?
Makeshift meth labs, akin to the RV lab in the popular show "Breaking Bad," are not as common as they once were. Federal law enforcement busts of homemade labs in the U.S. have declined.
But meth seizures at the U.S. borders and ports of entry more than tripled between fiscal years 2012 and 2017, rising to 44,065 pounds of the drug recovered, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Earlier this year, border agents seized 65 pounds of liquid meth at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport that was shipped from China and disguised as printing ink.
"I don't have direct evidence, but it's apparent to me that methamphetamine is being shipped into the region along with heroin and fentanyl on a scale that has never happened before," Carlson said.
Cornelius Frolik writes for the Dayton Daily News. Email: Cornelius.Frolik(at)coxinc.com.
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