A deadly brew

Mar 042003
Authors: Patrick Crossland

To determine the gravity of methamphetamine use in Larimer County, one needs to look no further than Gregg Lammons, screening officer for the District Attorney’s office.

“I file meth cases every day,” said Lammons. “I’m filing more methamphetamine cases than any other drug.”

As a screening officer, Lammons decides what charges to file based on the evidence presented in each case.

“I know meth is a problem across the state,” he said. “I know it’s a problem here.”

After officers investigate a crime, reports are presented to Lammons, who decides if the information is prosecutable. Eyewitness accounts, admissions, informants and undercover police work all factor into the feasibility of prosecution.

The use and production of methamphetamine has substantially increased and according to Lammons, is the number one drug problem in the county.

“It wasn’t that way five years ago, but it is now,” he said.

Made from household products, methamphetamine has become the retableiest used drug in the county.

“Meth is probably the drug of choice over cocaine,” said Francis Gonzales, sergeant with the Larimer County drug task force.

Most methamphetamine is coming across the border from Mexico, where it is produced in “super labs,” capable of manufacturing the drug in kilo-quantities. So-called “kitchen labs” are capable of creating anywhere from a gram (one sugar packet) up to a pound.

The drug, composed of household chemicals such as acetone, antifreeze, Drano and various acids, can be cooked in a kitchen and moved from house to house with ease.

“Meth comes from the border or next door,” said Gonzales. “If you know the recipe, you can cook up a batch in a couple of hours.”

The drugs are smuggled across the border by individuals known as “mules” that are later paid in cash or in what they transport, said Gonzales.

In a recent drug bust, police tied into a drug train stretching from Tijuana to Colorado. A drug runner named Novoa-Cardenas was bringing drugs across the border into California through Colorado and to Illinois. Police were able to tap into the drug runners’ phone lines, resulting in 22 arrests, nine search warrants, the seizure of ephedrine, cocaine, 8.9 kilograms of methanphetamine and five hand guns.

Gonzales works closely with local supermarkets to monitor large sales of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine and iodine.

“We put these things on a watch list,” Gonzales said. “Our guys go through with confidential informants.”

Gonzales said methamphetamine has been a problem in Larimer County since the late 1980s, but was first seen during the time of Pearl Harbor when Japanese pilots would use the drug before missions.

“It was known as ‘prope dope,'” he said. “Speed has been around a long time.”

The drug task force uncovers approximately 23 labs per year, or about two labs per month, Gonzales said.

“We’ve seen it evolve from a pharmaceutical drug to being manufactured in kitchens and chicken coops,” he said.

After a lab has been detected and before it can be cleaned up, police have to secure their safety. One way of doing this is to test the air of a potential lab site with a device to measure the toxins in the air. If the air is unclean, police then decide the level of protection needed.

A meth lab raid can go anywhere from using a breathing apparatus which filters the air to a fully encapsulated suit, said Gonzales.

“They’re dangerous chemicals,” said Gonzales. “We have to handle them carefully.”

After being apprehended, the suspect is taken to the Larimer County Detention Center, where he or she may undergo medical screenings to detect if there are toxins in his or her blood.

“If we have concerns because of the way a person is acting, we go through medical screenings,” said Lieutenant Deb Russel of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

If police are concerned about a suspect’s health, a nurse may examine the individual and he or she may be taken to a hospital.

Russel considers factors such as whether there are medical concerns, if the suspect is coherent, functioning properly and understanding their surroundings.

If an individual was on methadone, police watch for lethargic behavior, Russel said.

“There are things we do watch for,” she said. “There are indicators and guidelines.”

Some police check for nystagmus, a jerking of the eye when tracking an object from side to side. Police do not base screening solely on if an individual has come in on drug charges.

“Just because someone is brought in with drug charges doesn’t indicate they are under the influence of drugs at that moment,” Russel said. “Sometimes people with mental health issues can have the same actions as someone on drugs.”

After having been detoxified, suspects are brought before a drug court, where Judge Arnaud Newton interacts with suspects to find a solution that will help end the drug problem.

“It’s much more one-on-one,” Newton said. “I’m encouraging them, I’m chewing them out.”

The court implies course therapy to drug addicts who are often losing teeth and malnourished.

“Our concept is that quitting is much more better than the alternative,” he said. “Immediacy is a part of it.”

Drug abusers are tied to their addiction at many levels. For many drug users, the desire to return to the feeling drugs give them is what keeps them addicted.

“The big thing is wanting to get back to that feeling again. It’s frustrating for the drug court,” Newton said. ” We get them clean for about 30 days and then all the things that got them into it-mental health, immaturity-pull them back in.”

Newton said by the time methamphetamine users become sober, they have lost their ability to live a normal life.

“When they get their head clear, they don’t know how to live their life in general,” he said.

In the two years that the drug court has been in existence, Newton has seen its effectiveness and attributes its success to the nature of the program.

“I like to think that the drug court is very effective because of the cohesive nature of the program,” he said.

Despite the court’s successes, the prevalence of methamphetamine will likely keep the courts busy for some time.

“It is the biggest problem we have right now in drug court,” Newton said.

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