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Crystal meth from Mexico called ‘the latest scourge’ for western Michigan

A crackdown on ingredients used to produce methamphetamine locally has spurred demand for a potent, highly-addictive form of crystal meth that's arriving here from clandestine labs in Mexico.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Police agencies throughout western Michigan are reporting a surge in crystal methamphetamine investigations, a grim reality one prosecutor called “the latest scourge.’’ 

A Kent County drug team has seen meth-related investigations spike 250 percent; meth seizures in 2018 were up 1,600 percent.

Kent County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Kelley calls the spike “staggering.’’

“Concern is definitely there that we’re on the rise of something,’’ Kelley said. 

The Kent Area Narcotics Enforcement Team in 2017 conducted 46 meth investigations. That number jumped to 161 last year. Kelley says the accelerated pace continues.

“The vast majority of search warrants that we’ve already done this year have been meth-related,’’ he said.

Seizures also are up. The drug unit in 2017 confiscated about 4.7 ounces of methamphetamine. Seizures in 2018 topped five pounds.

“Based on what we’ve already done in 2019, I don’t believe it will shrink,’’ Kelley said.

Meth-related prosecutions in Kent County are climbing; a trend Prosecutor Chris Becker says is troubling, but not surprising.

“It’s a statewide problem; something that’s on the rise all over the place,’’ Becker said. “And it’s very concerning because meth has the potential to destroy lives rather quickly. People get hooked and they go on a downward spiral.’’

Federal prosecutions have risen steadily in recent years, said U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge, whose Grand Rapids office oversees cases throughout western Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

“Methamphetamine is, unfortunately, the latest scourge,’’ Birge said. “It’s back.’’

His office prosecuted 37 methamphetamine cases last year; nearly double the volume of 2017.

“It’s cheaper, it’s stronger, more powerful and more addictive,’’ Birge said. “Again, it’s the new scourge.’’

Affordability and availability have helped fuel the surge.

A gram of methamphetamine costs about $40; the same amount of heroin can cost anywhere between $120 and $150, investigators say.

A growing fear of heroin has also channeled drug users to meth.

“A lot of the users and dealers we’ve dealt with have become more afraid of heroin; more afraid of the overdoses with heroin,’’ Kelley said.

Kent County Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle said methamphetamine overdose deaths are infrequent. Opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, are far more prevalent in fatal overdoses.

“Methamphetamine has not been a commonly-used drug in overdose situations,’’ Cohle said. “I would say we get two or three cases a year that are overdoses by methamphetamine.’’

The influx of crystal methamphetamine made in clandestine labs south of the border is also behind the resurgence, Birge said.

“What’s happening now is that the Mexican cartels have gotten involved in manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine,’’ Birge said. “It is now incredibly cheap because you have cartels who are able to manufacture it on that industrial scale.’’ 

Up until the last few years, much of the methamphetamine seized by local police agencies was made in home laboratories. Cooks often got the needed ingredients from drug stores and hardware stores.

“Ten, 15 years ago, the prototypical methamphetamine case was going to be someone who tried to cook it up back in the woods or in a trailer, or in a kitchen or a hotel room,’’ Birge said. “We’re seeing less of that.’’

Indeed, the meth cooks that bedeviled local police have all but disappeared from the landscape.

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department in 2016 investigated 16 meth labs. In 2018, there were none.

Part of that is due to state laws that curbed the availability of pseudoephedrine, a drug commonly found in cold medicine that was a primary ingredient for home cooks. In addition to limiting sales of pseudoephedrine, the state now uses a computerized system that tracks those sales.

“Those home cooks have really fallen off,’’ said Michigan State Police Lt. Andrew Fias, who oversees drug investigation teams in a dozen western Michigan counties.

Crystal meth manufactured in Mexico has filled the void, he said.

“Imported meth has put the one-pot cooks out of business,’’ Fias said. “It’s good crystal meth and it’s coming out of Mexico and it is cheap. And people are getting hooked.’’

Among those caught in its clutches is 41-year-old Brian Scott Smith of Grand Rapids, who was sentenced to prison on meth possession and delivery convictions. Smith told investigators he had a client base of between 10 and 20 people. 

A search of his home last summer netted more than 1½ pounds of crystal meth and $6,000 in cash. 

“I apologize for my actions,’’ he told Kent County Circuit Court Judge George Jay Quist during sentencing in April. “Methamphetamine just took over my life. It’s a bad thing; I couldn’t control myself.’’

Kelley says it’s a common lament from those arrested.

“When it sinks its teeth into people, they have a hard time getting off of this,’’ Kelley said. “There’s an addiction that you’re fighting for the rest of your life.’’

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