The number of methamphetamine laboratories in Ohio is growing, even as new electronic tracking kicks in to supposedly make it harder to buy the over-thecounter cold medicines that help feed the problem.
The Sandusky area seems to have avoided the trend thus far, with no meth labs reported found in Erie or Ottawa counties this year.
Figures compiled by the Ohio Attorney General’s office show that, so far during the current federal fiscal year — Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 — Ohio has recorded 770 meth labs. That’s the highest tally in a nine-year time span. There were 607 last year, for example, and just 112 in 2008.
The current tally of 770 is as of Aug. 24, which means the final count is certain to rise. A county-by-county tally shows no meth labs have been found in Erie or Ottawa counties this year, and just one has been recorded in Huron County.
Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike DeWine, cautioned that while DeWine tries to get every county to report its meth lab numbers, reporting is not mandatory and some counties could be skipping the reports.
But Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth and Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick both said this week they haven’t reported any meth labs in 2013 because they haven’t found any. Sigsworth said the last one in Erie County he could remember was two or three years ago, in Sandusky.
“We’ve had none. We have been very fortunate in Ottawa County,” Levorchick said. “We have not had one in several years.”
The figures from the Attorney General’s office shows that meth labs are a major problem in other areas of the state. So far this year, 230 meth labs were found in Summit County, 61 apiece in Ashtabula and Highland counties, 40 in Fairfield County and 38 in Clermont County.
Officials interviewed by the Register cited regional differences in illegal drug preferences, but they said Summit County also has a longstanding, aggressive anti-meth lab program.
“Heroin and the prescription pills are our biggest issue right now,” said Sigsworth, referring to the abuse of prescription painkillers. Crack cocaine cases also still turn up, he said.
The high numbers in Summit County are not a surprise, said John Butterworth, a special agent at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Clandestine Lab/Marijuana Suppression unit.
“It’s been that way for years, for as long as I can remember,” he said. The upward trend in Ohio may be part of a national trend.
A January 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ “watchdog” agency, reported that meth lab incidents nationwide fell from 2004 to 2007. Since then, however, such incidents have been going upward.
The GAO report says restrictions on the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine or PSE, a key ingredient for making homemade meth, can affect the number of meth lab incidents. The states have been battling meth addicts who try to evade the restrictions by going from one store to another to buy cold medicines.
Like many other states, Ohio restricts the amount of PSE medicines each customer can buy at one time. Ohio’s limit for PSE products is 3.6 grams in one day and 9 grams in 30 consecutive days.
A new state law that went into effect in June requires all Ohio pharmacies to use the National Precursor Log Exchange, an electronic tracking system for purchases of medicines with PSE.
“We’ll be able to track the sales of pseudoephedrine a lot better, who’s going from place to place,” Butterworth said.
But the GAO report says the effectiveness of electronic tracking has been limited by the rise of “smurfing” — recruiting large numbers of people to buy cold medicines for making meth. Fake IDs to avoid limits also enter into the process. In addition, a new method of making meth, the “One Pot” method, is easier and requires less PSE, the report says.
Despite longtime use of electronic tracking, meth lab incidents in Kentucky rose from 336 in 2006 to 1,758 in 2011. Similar large increases have been recorded in other states that have used electronic tracking for years, such as Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, and some communities in Missouri have taken the relatively radical approach of banning over-the-counter sales of PSE cold products and requiring doctor’s prescriptions to buy them. Meth lab incidents in Mississippi fell from 937 in 2010 to 321 in 2011. Oregon, which had 614 meth lab incidents in 2002, reported 11 in 2011.
But while both states experienced radical declines in meth labs following passage of the law, the approach admittedly has a big downside: It’s much less convenient for people who are sick to obtain popular cold medicines.
“In order to really make a dent, you’d have to make it prescription only,” Butterworth said.
But having to go to the doctor, or at least phone a doctor, is a pretty large inconvenience, he said.