The description Rodney Cummings gives of Madison County makes the central Indiana area sound like a war zone.
Houses and hotel rooms have blown up, and many children live covered in chemicals. Just talking about the situation causes the Madison County prosecutor to sigh and say, “You have no idea how rough it is here.”
The source of the problem is the manufacture and abuse of methamphetamine, a volatile mix of medicine and toxins that forms a highly addictive drug. Within the past decade, clandestine meth labs found by Indiana law enforcement have ballooned from 732 in 2002 to 1,726 in 2012, according to Indiana State Police statistics.
Madison County led the state in 2012 with 96 meth labs discovered. Vanderburgh County was second with 81.
In 2005 and 2011, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation aimed at curbing the rise in meth use. Now with six new bills introduced in the 2013 session, the Legislature is again turning its attention to the problem.
However, Cummings is not hopeful any new law will help. In fact, he said he is very frustrated and does not expect any of the bills to pass because of the strength of the retail lobby.
Moreover, he said, even if the state puts up more obstacles, the users will still find a way to get the drugs they want.
The six bills circulating this session all target ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the key ingredients in meth. Indiana State Police Capt. David Bursten compared the process of trying to make meth without these substances as trying to make water without two parts hydrogen.
Of the proposed legislation, two bills would reduce how much an individual could purchase of an ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-containing medication like cold and allergy pills. The remaining bills – three introduced into the Senate and one offered in the House – would make medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine available by prescription only.
A bill authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, is moving through the Legislature after it was passed unanimously by the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law. Senate Bill 496 limits the amount of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine a person can purchase to 61.2 grams per year. It also increases the criminal penalty for individuals who buy certain meth ingredients with the intent to give them to someone else expressly for making meth and prohibits anyone convicted of a meth-related crime from possessing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine without a prescription for seven years.
Yoder is confident these measures will curb the making of meth because it will make the key ingredients more difficult to obtain. He called the bill a “good step forward” that still allows the law-abiding citizens access to cold and allergy medicines without having to go to their doctors and get prescriptions.
However, Cummings maintains to have a true impact on the meth epidemic, the Legislature must label ephedrine and pseudoephedrine as controlled substances that require a doctor’s prescription.
Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, agrees. He introduced SB 498 this session that would classify compounds, mixtures and preparations containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine as Schedule III Controlled Substances and make them available only with a prescription.
Oregon passed legislation making ephedrine and pseudoephedrine available only with a prescription in 2005 and has since recorded a significant drop in meth labs, according to data from the Oregon Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.
The number of labs in the Beaver State dropped to 63 in 2006, less than half 2005’s total of 192. Meth labs have continued to fall year after year, landing at 10 in 2011.
Head believes that success can be duplicated in Indiana. A former deputy prosecutor, he, like Cummings, has seen the impact meth has on individuals and communities. A prescription requirement would not eradicate meth, he said, but it would significantly decrease the number of labs in Indiana and make the meth much more difficult to obtain.
Critics charge meth would still be available even with prescription restrictions. While the number of home labs would be reduced, the amount of the drug being imported into the state would likely increase.
Advocates counter that meth would still be less prevalent and much more expensive.
Even so, Head’s bill will not get a hearing this session which does not surprise him. He sees the Legislature preferring to take incremental steps, but, eventually, he anticipates the state will limit ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to prescription only.
“The people have to get use to the idea,” he said.
Getting to the cause
The Legislature’s approach, although gradual, did yield early success. After the 2005 bill was passed, which put the ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-containing medicines behind the pharmacy counter and limited the amount that could be bought in a day, the number of meth labs fell sharply.
In 2005, total labs seized in Indiana was 1,065, but in 2006 and 2007 the numbers had dropped to 803 and 832, respectively. Yet, the drop was short-lived. By 2008, the total had risen to 1,104 and in 2012 reached 1,726.
Meth makers found a way around the law by a practice called “smurfing.” Multiple friends pile in a car and drive from pharmacy to pharmacy, each purchasing the boxes of cold or allergy medicine.
Indianapolis criminal defense attorney Ross Thomas is frustrated with the legislation passed and proposed because the measures do not recognize the difference between meth makers and drug dealers.
Meth manufacturers are being charged the same way as a dealer of narcotics, he said. However, most meth makers are not part of a system of importers, wholesalers and retailers. They are making the drug primarily to feed their addiction and not to make money.
“Unfortunately, the criminal justice system treats these cases the same way as cocaine or heroin dealers,” he said. “Fact is these people have a whole different set of priorities.”
In Madison County, 35 percent of the prosecutor’s caseload is meth related, Cummings said. Most plead guilty and get sentenced anywhere from eight to 14 years in prison. He questioned adding penalties to meth crimes.
“It’s just means we’ll lock up more people,” Cummings said. “State Department of Correction is already mad because we’re sending so many people to jail anyway.”
Yoder concurred that putting people in jail is not a solution. But he does not think making ephedrine and pseudoephedrine available only through a prescription is the solution either. Doctors are already swamped, he said, and prescription drugs are among the most abused drugs.
Although his bill does not contain language about rehabilitation, he said offering programs to help people overcome their meth addictions might be the next step.
Still, rehab efforts would cost money and require a lot of political will to implement. Chuckling at the thought of the Legislature passing such bills, Thomas said that along with education so people don’t start, helping addicts quit would do more to stop the spread of meth.
“It would be the solution, the better solution,” Thomas said. “What they’re talking about is putting a Band-Aid on a skull fracture.”
Cummings pointed to a more fundamental solution – fix the economy. In Madison County alone, 40,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost and currently 84 percent of school children are on public assistance.
Meth is an indication, he said, that “people have lost hope in their ability to live out the American dream.”•