A year ago, northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan authorities were bracing for a flood of illegal methamphetamine.
The drug had swept east from California, and Indiana ranked fourth in the nation in meth lab seizures. That the tide would inundate the area seemed inevitable.
Today, local police and sheriffs' departments and drug enforcement agencies report that while meth manufacturing and use have increased somewhat, their rise has not been as dramatic as had been feared. Ohio and Michigan are ranked at the bottom of the top 20 states for meth lab seizures.
The Van Wert Police Department has seen "a little more activity" in the past year, Sgt. Jeffrey Blackmore said. Similar reports come from Williams County and the Hillsdale County Sheriff's Office in Michigan, which was a hotbed of meth activity last year.
Throughout northwest Ohio, "I would say it's increasing, but not at the epidemic levels we have seen in Iowa, Kansas, or especially Missouri," said Robert Kasprzak, project manager at the Community Partnership, a Toledo-based substance abuse intervention and prevention coalition.
While authorities can't pinpoint a particular reason, they cite a combination of factors that seem to have slowed the tide in Ohio:
Still, meth makes regular headlines locally, with three busts reported this month - two in Williams County and one in Paulding County.
Developed in the early part of the last century for use in bronchial inhalers and as a decongestant, the synthetic drug known as meth and poor man's cocaine is still available as a prescription for certain limited uses. Illegal use began in Hawaii, hopped to California, and spread east.
Seizures have been rare in New England and mid-Atlantic states but are rising in the South, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Its use and manufacture have settled in rural areas, where the distinctive stench of cooking meth dissipates in the open air. Few neighbors mean few witnesses; users and makers tend to be white men, although usage is popular among white women too, authorities said.
"It's not really an urban drug, although there are pockets of users in Toledo," Mr. Kasprzak said. "But it's pretty small [in Toledo]."
Jim Schultz, associate director of Substance Abuse Service Inc. in Toledo, said his agency has not seen any Toledoans being treated for meth use in the last couple years.
Officials with the Defiance-based Multi-Area Narcotics Unit, a law enforcement task force that covers Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Putnam, and Williams counties, said those counties have seen the lion's share of meth-related activity in northwest Ohio, prompting them to work together.
In 2004, the narcotics unit worked 34 cases involving meth. Last year, the number rose to 37. Officers arrested 35 people on meth charges in 2004; in 2005, the number dropped to 25. They uncovered six dump sites in 2004 and five last year.
In the last year, several states, including Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky, joined the ranks of 37 states that have passed laws requiring businesses that sell pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient for making meth, to track purchases and/or move the drugs behind the counter, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. The laws are too new, drug enforcement officials said, so there's no information yet on how well they're working.
But Summit County, which has led Ohio in meth seizures and arrests, saw a 30 percent drop in the number of labs seized in the six months after a similar local law that put pseudoephedrine behind the counter took effect last spring, said Capt. Hylton Baker, president of the Ohio Task Force Commanders Association and commander of the Summit County Drug Unit, a multijurisdictional task force.
A statewide Ohio law takes effect May 17, requiring stores to place behind the counter all medicines containing pseudoephedrine as its sole active ingredient; limiting sales of those medicines to customers 18 and older; and restricting purchases to no more than 9 grams within a 30-day period. It also requires merchants to keep logbooks of sales.
Police can't wait, noting that meth makers from Indiana and Michigan often cross the state line into northwest Ohio to buy the drug.
"It'll keep those people from running across the line because they can't get it here either," Captain Baker said. "Hopefully, that'll curtail a lot of the lab sites."
On the federal level, President Bush signed into law the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act earlier this month, which was tacked on to the Patriot Act, according to the National Association of Counties in Washington. The federal meth law imposes nationwide minimum requirements on the sale of pseudoephedrine, but it does not pre-empt restriction laws that many states have passed. These laws have been credited with dramatically cutting the number of small toxic labs, according to the association.
Farmers have become more savvy as well, with many cooperatives placing the anhydrous ammonia farmers use as fertilizer under lock and key and even surveillance. Anhydrous ammonia is a key ingredient in many meth recipes.
And that's one of the issues with lab sites: the poisons released by the process of making, or cooking, methamphetamine. Improperly handled, anhydrous ammonia can burn and even kill.
"Some cookers have died from exposure to anhydrous ammonia," Mr. Kasprzak said. "It sucks in all the moisture from the air, and if your hands or face are next to it, it can be deadly."
Some meth-fueled disasters result from the flammable materials often used to cook the drug.
"We've had nine fires in Summit County that we can attribute to guys blowing their labs up," Captain Baker said. "One guy ran back inside to cover up the lab. He had to be restrained. ... In Logan County in November, a van outside a Wal-Mart exploded while [a man] was inside trying to re-up some of his chemicals."
All of these factors mean meth makers' children are particularly at risk.
"We're starting to see an increase in requests for treatment of meth," Mr. Kasprzak said. "Some people are being threatened [with having] their children taken away, so they'll try treatment."
Social services are starting to step in with education programs for youngsters and social and health workers, the people most likely to enter a home where meth is being made.
The Community Partnership is training health department workers in Fulton County next month; it also has developed a new program for children - one of 14 in the United States, Mr. Kasprzak said.
"We built a curriculum to teach kids the dangers of poisons and toxins and to give them some refusal skills," Mr. Kasprzak said.
Education programs for adults also are on the rise. Law enforcement agencies have had training options for a few years; other emergency workers have increased options as well.
On April 6, the University of Findlay's school of environmental and emergency management will offer a training Webcast on dealing with clandestine methamphetamine labs. Police, emergency medical technicians, hazardous materials workers, and social services workers will conduct the simulation of dealing with a meth cooking lab.
Despite the progress in raising awareness, no one thinks the problem is going to fade away.
"The criminal is becoming a little more clever," said Undersheriff Jeremiah J. Hodshire of Hillsdale County in Michigan. "It doesn't mean, because the numbers are down, they're not out there. It means they're becoming increasingly difficult to find."
And the tight economy doesn't help. Last year, the Hillsdale Sheriff's Office formed a special unit devoted solely to meth enforcement. The unit has since disbanded because funding no longer exists.
"The goal was the meth team would go out and investigate," Undersheriff Hodshire said. "We still have the meth team, and when there are substantial tips, then we do put the men on overtime for the team. But as far as our concept of having them in the field, that is no longer [possible] due to budgetary constraints."
And that's the case in plenty of counties, Captain Baker said. The counties in Ohio that have had most of the meth busts don't necessarily have most of the meth labs.
They simply have more people for enforcement, he said. Lack of law enforcement coverage means meth makers can operate far more easily.
"I'm sure they're out there in other parts of the state," Captain Baker said. "They just haven't found them."
Contact Vanessa Winans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6168.