'Out of the closet'

Meth has emerged as Moffat County's top law enforcement issue

Moffat County Sheriff's deputies encountered a twitchy suspect whose speech was slurred and rapid on a domestic violence call in August 2003.

The man's face was flushed and officers said the man's body movements were "very radical and he appeared to be very unstable in all his actions."

The complainant, a woman, told police the man had been "tweaking" for several days.

When officers asked what she meant by "tweaking," the woman said, "That white powder everyone in Craig has been taking. It makes (the suspect) crazy when he takes it."

"What?" the officers wanted to know.

"Meth," she said.

The man was taken to the hospital, where a lab test confirmed he had ingested amphetamines. It was hardly an isolated incident.

Law officers found methamphetamine all over Craig and Moffat County in 2003. The presence of meth in the community had been detected early in the decade. In law enforcement circles, the drug became a household name because of the way it spread like wildfire across the Front Range.

Reports of meth lab busts have

rising rapidly since about 1995.

The North Metro Task Force, which combats illicit drugs in the north metro Denver area, reported seizing three meth labs in 1995. By 2002, the task forced seized 92 labs. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 16 labs were seized in 1996 in Colorado.

By 2001, the number of meth lab busts statewide had climbed to 216.

In 2002, the impact of meth's growing grip was unmistakable to those on the front lines in Moffat County.

Officers were regularly coming into contact with people in possession of meth or paraphernalia used to smoke the white or off-white crystals and powder.

By 2003, methamphetamine was rampant. Prosecutors filed a record number of felonies in 2003 and attributed the rise to meth. The Moffat County Jail saw its local inmate population increase, and Sheriff Buddy Grinstead cited meth as a driving factor.

More and more common

"I don't think there's a law enforcement officer who hasn't confiscated meth," said Craig Police Officer Tony Fandel.

Officers find the drug during routine traffic stops or when arresting suspects on unrelated warrants. They found it in suspects' pockets, stuffed in socks, lying in the consoles of automobiles or stashed in diaper bags.

A shoplifter who nervously eyed his backpack and screamed obscenities at police was found in possession of a digital scale, 10 smoking pipes and numerous baggies that contained methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana.

Although all three drugs have been thorns in the side of police, methamphetamine has emerged as the new drug of choice, said Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta. Methamphetamine is the most often confiscated illicit substance in town. It is now as common for officers to find suspects in possession of meth as it once was to find them with a bag of marijuana, said Craig Police Sgt. Bill Leonard.

Vanatta said the problem is significant in Craig.

"It seems that our officers are contacting people who are somehow involved with meth on almost a daily basis. It's not quite that bad, but it's at least several times a week," Vanatta said. "Within the last year, its use has become more blatant by people, to where we're contacting it all the time. It has come out of the closet, so to speak."

Tools of the trade

The evidence locker at the Public Safety Center is full of articles used to induce meth into the human body. There are light bulbs fashioned into homemade pipes, syringes confiscated from local addicts and even store-bought glass smoking implements that are now covered in meth residue and burn marks.

At least one store in Steamboat Springs operates a legal business selling items identical to the ones found in connection with meth use. Go Ask Alice sells a variety of hand-blown glass and mass-produced smoking pipes.

"That's an interesting by-product of our society," Vanatta said. "We have laws restricting the use of certain types of drugs, yet the sale of merchandise for its use is allowable.

"Purely based on their design, it's obvious they're being used for illegal substances."

Vanatta said that the shops operate legally because the paraphernalia can be used for legal purposes, such as smoking tobacco.

One popular design of the pipes used to smoke methamphetamine doesn't resemble a tobacco pipe. It's glass tube several inches long with a bulb on the end. On top of the bulb is a hole about a quarter of an inch in diameter.

Fire from a lighter doesn't come into contact with the material in the bulb. The flame only heats the bulb, which, in the case of meth, melts the contents and gives off vapor and smoke.

"We confiscate homemade paraphernalia," Vanatta said, "but also the stuff available from retail outlets."

A manager at Go Ask Alice, who wished to remain unidentified, said the store can't be responsible for how people use its goods. He compared it to the sale of guns that might be used to commit crimes. The people who purchase the items choose how they will be used, he said.

"We sell only to adults and what they do with it when they leave here, I can't do anything about it," the man said.

Any mention of illegal substances or illegal use is not tolerated in the store, the man said. Customers must provide a photo ID to prove they are at least 18.

Centered in Craig

Although the head shops are in Steamboat, much of the drug problem appears to be centered in Craig, said an officer who works for the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.

The agent asked to remain anonymous because giving a name might compromise investigations, which are sometimes carried out under cover.

GRAMNET does investigate suspected drug dealers in all three counties. But in the case of meth, "the bulk of the cases have to do with Craig and Moffat County," the agent said

The agent speculated that the reason for the Craig connection may be economic. Those who deal methamphetamine find it cheaper to live in Craig, although their clientele includes users in resort communities.

Meth can be produced anywhere there's enough room for a hot plate and a few containers to separate the chemicals used to make it. Some of the meth that has been confiscated has been produced locally, the agent said. Officers have found meth that is still wet, an indication it was just manufactured. But the bulk of the drug appears to be what agents refer to as "Mexican meth" -- methamphetamine that has been mass produced and smuggled into the country, the agent said.

In January 2003, officers raided a house and found the makings of a meth lab as well as the finished product. The meth from the raid was a very potent product that was more than 90 percent pure, according to police.

A record year

That raid kicked off a year in which the rise in meth-related crimes was undeniable. Vanatta pointed to statistics that testify to the growing problem.

Police made 22 narcotics arrests in 2002. But in 2003, 46 suspects were arrested for drugs. Total arrests rose 7 percent. Felony arrests increased by 17 percent. Use of force by officers jumped by 21 percent. Vanatta said the rise in arrests was a symptom of meth's prevalence in the community.

Vanatta estimates that 80 percent of the crimes police investigate are in some way related to methamphetamine, whether it's fights that erupt over drug debts or between users who are tweaking, or burglaries by addicts hoping to steal items to pawn for the drug.

GRAMNET -- which employs police and sheriff's officers in Grand, Routt and Moffat counties -- has worked cases with coast-to-coast connections and some that originated in Mexico.

While GRAMNET is focused on working "up the ladder" toward the sources, police are zeroing-in on local dealers and users.

It's a division of labor in which police concentrate on patrolling and responding to incidents, which often result in arrests of meth users, while GRAMNET spends more time developing cases against suppliers and distributors.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite said he thinks a key step to controlling meth and its effects in the community is to get to the dealers and the suppliers who sell the drug.

The GRAMNET agent agreed.

"For us to make a dent in the problem, it is our goal to go up the ladder and get the dealers and suppliers."

Spotting the signs

In the meantime, police seem to be arresting and rearresting meth users, who bond out of jail or get sentenced to probation or rehab and end up back in jail for meth possession again.

The low frequency of large busts of known traffickers causes impatience among citizens, the GRAMNET agent said.

People wonder why it appears that nothing is being done. GRAMNET is amassing information to bring down the supply chain, and that means low-level operators don't get busted right away.

"Yeah, we could arrest all those little guys," the agent said, "but we would be burning our cases way too soon. We are making progress, but it's slow progress. These cases take a lot longer to build."

While police patrol the streets of Craig, Vanatta said he wants to foster an environment in which drug abusers feel less willing to "go around using wherever they want."

In response, police have conducted drug interdictions, in which officers canvass an area, conduct traffic stops and bring in drug dogs to sniff the car if there is probable cause for a search.

Even without a narcotics-sniffing dog, officers are keen to the signs of meth use.

One suspect appeared to have tremors in his eyelids, legs and abdomen. He was grinding his teeth as he spoke to officers.

Nearly 24 hours after the suspect said he had last used the drug, an officer noted, "It became very obvious (the suspect) was still under the influence of meth."

In that incident, officers found a hypodermic needle, two vials of liquid and powder that field-tested positive for methamphetamine.

According to court documents, the suspect admitted to being an intravenous drug user who shot up methamphetamine.

Another suspect who appeared to be very nervous and was breathing heavily would not show police his hands.

"I could see he was moving his hands around in his back pocket," an officer wrote in a report of the incident. That suspect soon ran in an attempt to escape. Police caught him, and sprayed him with a hot pepper mixture.

After he was subdued, officers found the man in possession of white crystals in a vial. The crystals were field tested and yielded a "presumptive positive" result for the presence of methamphetamine. Officers carry field test kits that yield quick results, but those results are referred to as "presumptive" until a laboratory confirms the drug's presence.

Impact on children

Several court cases include evidence that children are in the thick of the meth phenomenon. Arrests have removed parents from homes and broken up families.

When officers visited a residence to check on a possible probation violation, they found six children and a woman who admitted to her meth addiction.

When police interviewed the suspect, court documents indicate that she "talked about her meth habit: when it started, how much she used on a daily basis and how she supported her habit selling drugs."

She was later sentenced to five years in prison.

Before suspects get to prison, they often serve lengthy stays in the Moffat County Jail. There has been an 89 percent increase in jail bookings since 1989, and Sheriff Buddy Grinstead cites meth as the reason for much of the increased population.

The jail is incurring more medical costs for inmates who have complications related to their methamphetamine addictions, Grinstead said.

Some inmates have problems with their teeth, which have been eaten away by meth, Grinstead said. Also, the jail is fielding more calls from inmates asking for mental health services.

"When these guys are out, they're not concerned with taking care of themselves," Grinstead said. "They don't care as long as they're high."

When the users get to jail and go off meth cold turkey, they suffer aches and pains and other maladies as part of their withdrawal. They capitalize on the county's burden to provide medical treatment and complain about every discomfort, the sheriff said.

Unknown dangers

Police and sheriff's officers who encounter the users on the streets have to be concerned about a variety of dangers, Grinstead said. Officers have to watch out for hypodermic needles when they pat suspects down. Some of the suspects have been known to carry weapons.

"A lot of intel reports are coming in about people carrying and packing weapons," Grinstead said.

People who are high on meth are committing the crime of carrying a weapon during the commission of a felony, which itself is a felony.

Meth is cheaper and easier to procure than cocaine, Grinstead said, which is one of the reasons it's such a problem. Meth goes farther and the high lasts longer than cocaine, too, so it has landed in the hands of many who otherwise couldn't afford a drug habit, Grinstead said.

"And if they can't afford it, we've seen they'll steal items and swap them for it," Grinstead said.

He cited a recent gun theft case in which the firearms were traded for methamphetamine.

Grinstead doesn't see any end to the meth problem, predicting it will be around for a long time. There's no magic bullet for stopping it; no one thing that could curtail the spread of meth into families and communities.

Law enforcement goes only so far.

"Once they're out of jail, they're right back at it," Grinstead said.

But Grinstead sees families as a starting point.

He's encouraged by several attempts citizens have made to intervene and get help for family members hooked on meth.

In one case the parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles of a meth user successfully convinced the addict to seek help, even going so far as to help the family member pack for a stay at a rehab.

But even family interventions and rehab can fail in the face of meth's grip on a person's body.

In the case of one user who was convinced to go to rehab, Grinstead remembers, "That lasted a short duration, then he walked away and to my knowledge has been back in jail twice since."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-70312 or by e-mail at jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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