Local police and health care providers are grappling with a drug epidemic that has long been prevalent in Bartholomew County but has largely been overshadowed by the opioid crisis — methamphetamine — which experts say is cheaper, more potent and more readily accessible than ever.
Dozens of people in Bartholomew County have sought help for methamphetamine addiction over the past several months, while fatal drug overdoses involving methamphetamine have ticked up.
Arrests for possession and dealing methamphetamine in Columbus have more than doubled over the past few years — with around one arrest, on average, every 30 hours this year.
“While we have been addressing opioids, it’s almost been forgotten that there’s a meth epidemic, and the meth epidemic has been surging over the past few years,” said Dr. Kevin Terrell, medical director at Columbus Regional Health’s Treatment and Support Center, or TASC.
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TASC, which provides a range of outpatient treatments for substance abuse disorders, opened its doors on July 1, with CRH officials expecting the addiction treatment center to serve around 126 patients during the first year. After five months, TASC has nearly surpassed that estimate — just with people seeking help for methamphetamine addiction.
From July 1 to Nov. 18, 117 of the 312 unique patients seen at TASC, or nearly 38%, told staff that at least one of the drugs they were struggling with was methamphetamine, according to figures provided by CRH.
“The most common scenario that we see is a person who uses both opioids and meth,” Terrell said. “The second most common that we see is meth alone, which edges out opioids by a small margin. Meth is what we see the most of.”
Terrell said the number of people seeking help for methamphetamine addiction has surprised him “to some degree,” but added that CRH’s initial estimate was “very conservative.”
“We all under-estimated the number of people who would be here,” Terrell said. “…We all knew there was a problem, but were unsure how many of people would seek help.”
‘A laundry list of drugs’
For Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting, methamphetamine, as well as a host of other drugs, are turning up all too often in toxicology reports from local deaths.
While sitting in his office in downtown Columbus, Nolting reviewed a redacted toxicology report that had been stripped of personal identifying information and counted the number of drugs found in the person’s system — which totaled at least nine different substances.
“We have methamphetamine here, we also have opiates, we also have cocaine, we have benzos, we have three types of fentanyl, we have clonazepam and diazepam and a little bit of caffeine and cigarette smoke. This is literally a laundry list,” Nolting said.
Given the number of different drugs that could have caused the person’s death, “It’s very difficult for us to say, ‘Yes, this is a (meth) overdose,’” Nolting said.
From Jan. 1 to Nov. 15, there were seven fatal drug overdoses in Bartholomew County in which methamphetamine was determined to be a significant contributing factor — matching the total for last year — including three overdoses that were directly attributed to methamphetamine use, according to county statistics.
In 2017, there were five fatal drug overdoses in which methamphetamine was determined to be a contributing factor and two overdose deaths caused by methamphetamine use.
“Meth is still the primary drug in Bartholomew County as far as what we see on the streets and what we see in arrests,” Nolting said. “There’s just a lot of it out there right now, and unfortunately, it’s readily accessible. It’s pretty easy to get.”
Nolting said education plays an important part in prevention, pointing to misinformation disseminated online, including claims that it is impossible to overdose on methamphetamine.
“That’s patently false,” Nolting said. “You can overdose on meth. It can cause arrhythmia, it can cause tons of heart issues. It can do anything. If you have high blood pressure, you can stroke out. I mean, there are tons of different ways where people can die and overdose from methamphetamine.”
“People take (what they read online) as gospel,” Nolting added. “‘Oh, well, he or she is a recovering addict, they must know.’ No they don’t. …You’ve not seen what a human heart looks like when it explodes.”
Other than strokes or an abnormal heartbeat that can lead to cardiac arrest, a fairly common causes of death during a methamphetamine overdose is the rupture of the left anterior descending artery, also called the widow maker, Nolting said.
The left anterior descending artery is the largest coronary artery and supplies the front of the heart muscle with blood, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The artery has received the ominous nickname because a blockage of that artery can cause a fatal heart attack.
‘The cheapest we’ve ever seen’
The methamphetamine trade is no longer confined to a patchwork of “mom and pop” labs across the country, according to law enforcement officials. Now, the lion’s share of methamphetamine is being mass produced overseas and smuggled into the United States.
The end results have been alarming — methamphetamine is more potent, cheaper and more readily available on the street than ever.
“Meth is different than it used to be,” said Sgt. Kyle Young of the Columbus Police Department.
“…They used to cook meth (locally). Now, we’re seeing more of the crystal meth that’s imported out of Mexico. Most of it is coming from Mexico.”
In Columbus, arrests for possession and dealing have more than doubled over the past five years, city statistics show. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 22, Columbus police made 233 arrests for possession of methamphetamine and 24 arrests for dealing in methamphetamine. In 2015, 110 arrests were made for possession and five for dealing.
Young said the uptick in arrests is, in part, due to information police have obtained from the community and individuals in jail. But once dealers are arrested, other people eventually take their place, Young said.
“It’s the old analogy, if there’s a hole in the dam that’s leaking water and you plug it, two more holes pop open. Sometimes that’s what it feels like,” said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.
Michael Gannon, assistant special agent in charge at the Indianapolis district office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the current price of methamphetamine in Indiana is so cheap, “it’s just there for the taking.”
“No question, it’s the cheapest we’ve ever seen it,” Gannon said.
In 2016, DEA agents in Indiana, at times, made undercover purchases of methamphetamine for around $850 per ounce, Gannon said. Now, the price per ounce has plummeted to around $270 per ounce. CPD officers said they have seen prices as low as $100 per ounce.
“We’re doing everything we can with our state and local partners,” Gannon said. “…And we’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue to grind away. That’s all we can do.”
Bartholomew County pops up on the DEA’s radar for methamphetamine “all the time,” said Dan Gordon, supervisory special agent at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who is based out of Indianapolis.
“We’ve been down there on a number of occasions,” Gordon said.
Most of the methamphetamine in the United States originates in Mexico, where law enforcement officials say drug cartels are making large batches of the drug in clandestine “superlabs.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they also are intercepting shipments of the drug from China, Canada and Europe.
“It’s coming across the southern and northern borders. It also arrives in international mail and express delivery shipments from overseas suppliers,” said Steve Bansbach, public information officer for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chicago Field Office. “…Methamphetamine can be produced pretty much anywhere.”
Customs and Border Protection officials have seized illegal shipments of drugs, including methamphetamine, at the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, the DHL facility in Cincinnati and the UPS facility in Louisville.
In fiscal year 2019, which ran from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, CBP officials at the Chicago field office seized 477 shipments of methamphetamine, weighing 772 pounds, according to official figures.
In fiscal year 2018, the Chicago field office seized 1,618 shipments, weighing at total of 719 pounds.
In June, border patrol agents at the Chicago field office found 13 pounds of methamphetamine concealed inside 20 containers of hair gel that were shipped to the United States from France.
“The bottom was stuffed with meth bags,” Bansbach said. “So they actually scooped (the hair gel) all out, put the meth in it and put the gel back in.”
Law enforcement officials said a community-wide response will help stem the methamphetamine epidemic, but getting drugs off the street is key.
“The fact of the matter is that you can have these programs in place and education, but if we don’t slow things down as far as what is coming into the U.S., there aren’t enough people and assets to take care of the problem,” Gordon said.
“We’re kind of swimming upstream,” he said.
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Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that can wreak havoc on the nervous system, brain and several other organs.
- Meth significantly increases heart rate and blood pressure, which result in an irregular heartbeat, heart attack or stroke
- Meth use can cause graying skin, acne due to restricted blood flow to the skin
- Meth can induce psychosis and can cause hallucinations — including a sensation of insects crawling under the skin
- Meth use causes structural changes in the brain and can cause anxiety, insomnia, violent rages, depression, among other issues.
- Meth users can develop "meth mouth," which refers to rotting teeth and gums caused by the drug’s acidity, bacteria and poor hygiene
For more information about methamphetamine and its effects on the body, visit the Meth Project at methproject.org.
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Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress
Columbus Regional Health’s Treatment and Support Center (TASC)