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One-pot recipe boosts meth use in Mich.

By Rosemary Parker
The Kalamazoo Gazette

DETROIT — A slew of tough new laws attacking the menace of methamphetamine seemed to be working: 451 meth-lab busts in Michigan in 2005 fell to 201 in 2007.

But now it seems that lull may have been the calm before a new storm.

Suddenly, meth-lab busts in some southwestern Michigan counties are spiking again, law-enforcement officials say. The reason: a quick new recipe for making the illicit stimulant.

In just a half hour, methamphetamine "cooks" can dump discount-store ingredients into a couple of pop bottles and end up with enough of the drug for personal use -- and repeat the steps when the high wears off.

Cooks still need the key ingredient pseudoephedrine, found in cold tablets.

But there are no more long hours heating ingredients over a stove; no more risking toxic fumes of anhydrous ammonia, the caustic catalyst most often used in the past.

Instead, in place of anhydrous ammonia, the new recipe calls for using common garden fertilizer or the ammonium nitrate found in cold-pack compresses — both easy to buy or steal.

The new "one-pot" method is often done on the fly, police say — in a moving car, with leftover components flung from the windows when the batch is complete.

The resurgence of mom-and-pop meth labs is hitting hard in southwestern Michigan, where the state's methamphetamine problem began in the late 1990s. Kalamazoo County already has had six lab busts in January alone, compared to 20 busts in 2007. The one-pot method was found in all of this year's seizures.

St. Joseph County, too, has seen a marked increase in this new cooking activity in recent weeks.

"Starting in November 2007, we started getting pounded with them," said Damon Knapp, a patrolman with the Sturgis Police Department.

In the two weeks before Christmas, Knapp said he responded to six incidents. Also, two seizures were made in the city of Sturgis in January, he said.

Jason Therrien, a deputy investigator with the St. Joseph County Sheriff's Department, estimated officers have responded to 15 to 20 methamphetamine calls already this year. All of the labs have been of the one-pot variety.

Knapp said he hasn't seen anything else but the one-pot method. "It is all over the place."

In Michigan, that is.

Therrien said he recently returned from a Drug Enforcement Agency training session in Quantico, Va. He said officers from other parts of the country said they had not yet seen the new method for creating methamphetamine.

"We are the only region where everyone is doing this one-pot method, and we're talking places like Missouri," one of the states hardest hit by methamphetamine, Therrien said.

That's a specialty that doesn't bode well for southwestern Michigan.

"I am afraid it's going to be worse than it was" in 2005, said David Boysen, a Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety sergeant assigned to the Kalamazoo Valley Enforcement Team, which targets illegal drug use in Kalamazoo County.

Michigan's first wave of methamphetamine problems peaked in 2005, with 115 labs seized in Kalamazoo County.

"We are getting overwhelmed with the volume of complaints now," Boysen said.

KVET officers have to worry about heroin, cocaine and drugs other than methamphetamine, Boysen said, but "if we wanted to go out every day and do a meth lab, we could get one every day."

Problem persists

Boysen and other officers say they are not surprised by the upswing in meth busts.

"When we saw the big decrease in (lab bust) numbers in 2005 and 2006, we didn't see a decrease in meth use," said Lt. Tony Saucedo, unit commander of the Michigan State Police Methamphetamine Investigation Team. "If you look at treatment numbers, they were still going up."

That suggested there were still plenty of people out there using the drug.

"The laws have helped a lot, but you've got some highly, highly addicted people looking for a fix," said Detective Sgt. Jim Coleman, a supervisor for the Southwest Enforcement Team, a multijurisdictional drug unit that handles cases in seven counties, including Kalamazoo. "They are going to find it one way or another."

Police also knew it was just a matter of time before those sent to prison for meth-related crimes would be released, and that many of them might return to using — and making — the drug.

That's why methamphetamine's comeback has occurred in southwestern Michigan, where authorities believe the state's meth problem started, Coleman said.

"There's a user-base already established and people unable to get off the drug are still looking to satisfy their appetite," he said.

Are deterrents working?

The restrictions placed on purchasing pseudoephedrine, enacted in December 2005, require signatures and identification to buy limited amounts of cold medicine over the counter. That's made acquiring the pseudoephedrine "inconvenient," but not impossible, Coleman said.

"It's just staggering the amount of pseudoephedrine people are buying," Boysen said, even with the requirement they sign their names in a logbook at the time of purchase.

Police had hoped meth users would be reluctant to sign their names when purchasing pseudoephedrine because it would lead police to them. It has been a deterrent to some, Boysen said, but those determined to continue manufacturing the drug still do whatever it takes to get the pseudoephedrine.

Sheriff's deputy investigator Therrien estimated half or more of the pseudoephedrine purchases in St. Joseph County are for illicit purposes.

Meth users are going to pharmacies throughout the region. "They'll spend all day driving around," Boysen said.
"We look at the logs on a regular basis, so we know who they are," Coleman said. "But it's a matter of tracking them down, and that's not always the easiest thing to do."

Once again, drug-enforcement teams are warning retailers about new signs to watch for — repeated purchases of garden fertilizer or cold packs. And they're warning the public about the danger of discarded pop bottles that may carry residual chemicals that can be explosive and flammable.

"We are not seeing it (meth) go away, that's for sure," said Michael Anderson, detective sergeant with the Michigan State Police West Michigan Enforcement Team.

"As we make headway, they are very resilient and they are a half step to a step ahead of us. It continues to evolve and you do what you can to stay ahead of it."

Copyright 2008 Kalamazoo Gazette

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