COLUMBUS — More methamphetamine labs were uncovered in Bartholomew, Decatur and Jennings counties last year than in most other counties in the state, according to Indiana State Police.
State and local police responded to 1,395 meth lab incidents across Indiana in 2010. That’s 31 more labs than were found in the previous year, according to an annual ISP report released Friday.
Bartholomew, Decatur and Jennings counties all ranked in the top 10 counties with the most meth-lab incidents last year, totaling 186 labs in the three counties combined.
Decatur County ranked fifth with 68 meth labs; Bartholomew County was sixth with 63; and Jennings County came in seventh with 55.
Vanderburgh County in southwestern Indiana topped the list with 98 labs.
Local authorities said an aggressive two-pronged approach of educating the public and rooting out drug manufacturers contributed to the high number of labs in Bartholomew County.
However, they also acknowledge methamphetamine as a long-term problem with no concrete solution to defeat it.
“I guess I don’t know when it’s ever going to go away,” Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said. “It’s like a cancer in our society. It really took off and it’s stayed here. We can only hope to control it.”
The sheriff’s department and Columbus Police Department added efforts last year to combat meth production.
CPD increased the size of its narcotics division, adding more officers to investigate illicit drug sales and manufacturing.
Gorbett has pledged a stronger emphasis on tackling drug problems during his second administration, making it a top priority for the sheriff’s department.
An undercover narcotics officer for the sheriff’s department said officers have started giving seminars at least once a month to various civic organizations, schools and other community groups about the signs of meth production.
They hope an educated public will lead them to more drug labs.
Narcotics officers also keep an eye on pseudoephedrine logs at local pharmacies to see who is buying the cold medication, which is an ingredient in methamphetamine.
The undercover officer said the sheriff’s department has filed close to 100 cases of pseudoephedrine violations since late 2009.
State law prohibits the purchase of more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine medication a day and no more than 9 grams in 30 days.
The largest boxes of cold medication available hold 2.88 grams, so buying two big boxes in one day could put a person in violation.
The law’s intention is to slow the production of meth by making it harder to buy one of its key ingredients.
However, the undercover officer said meth cooks have found ways around the law, making it ineffective.
For example, he said the law has created a cottage industry in that people who do not use or make meth will buy boxes of cold medication for $10 and resell them to meth cooks for $50.
Meth users also will buy medication and trade it to drug manufacturers for the finished product.
“The smarter ones know the law,” he said. “They will calculate it to where they’re not exceeding the limit. They’ll buy as much as they can without exceeding the limit in a 30-day period.”
Police have also seen some cold-medication buyers purchase pseudoephedrine pills in more than one city, making it difficult for officers to track them.
Indiana State Police issued expected results of meth production if the state makes pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug instead of just tracking it at pharmacies.
If the state sticks with pharmacy checks, ISP anticipates a 248 percent increase in meth lab incidents across the state by 2012, which would be 3,338 labs.
The number of meth labs would drop to 243 across the state by 2012 if the state makes pseudoephedrine a prescription drug, or between a 40 and 70 percent decrease, according to the state’s expectations.
The undercover sheriff’s deputy said he would expect an initial drastic drop in meth lab incidents if the state requires a doctor’s prescription for pseudoephedrine medication.
However, he also said meth cooks possibly would find another way around the law as they have around the pharmacy checks.
Dismantling drug labs
As part of their efforts against meth, sheriff’s and CPD officers are getting trained to dismantle meth labs instead of relying on an ISP team that can sometimes take hours before it can respond to a production site.
One sheriff’s officer has completed training. Three more will be trained in March along with two CPD officers.
They also will buy equipment needed to clean up meth labs with grant money.
Authorities hope to reduce the manpower and amount of time officers spend at a meth incident.
Despite all their efforts, the sheriff said meth likely will remain a constant drug problem for the community, similar to how cocaine has stayed around for years.
“There’s still more emphasis on it. It’s just about manpower and getting it,” Gorbett said. “You always want to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we haven’t even seen the light yet.”