By Meagan Hansen
The Utah County Major Crimes Task Force is busier than usual this month.
“We have had five arrests in the last month,” said Lt. Stan Egan, field director for the drug and gang division of the task force. “That is really high.”
A crisis that state officials thought was under control has reemerged and methamphetamine is continuing to cause problems in Utah.
Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is “still the drug of choice in Utah County,” said Sgt. Guy Gustman of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force.
The increase in arrests is attributed to repeat offenders getting out of jail and going back to drugs.
“The people we put away three or four years ago are being arrested again,” Egan said. “They are the ones getting out on probation and getting back to work. These people are multiple offenders, career criminals. This is what they do.”
Of the five people arrested this month, all were repeat offenders.
In 1998, the task force arrested 47 people in Utah County force meth-related offences.
“We had the highest number of arrests in the nation,” Egan said. “It was almost one a week.”
After the crack down in 1998, the task force saw a gradual decrease in meth related arrests.
“It died off for a while,” Egan said. “The next year we went to 25 arrests, and then to 15 arrests. Last year there were 14, and we are at about 13 or 14 for this year.”
Methamphetamine is a stimulant, used mostly by people trying to lose weight and to stay awake for extended amounts of time. During the last 10 years, it has become a popular street drug.
The crackdown four years ago helped put many local meth cooks out of business, but now it is being smuggled into the state from Mexico, Egan said.
“Mexico is catching up,” Egan said. “They were losing money on cocaine and began to produce meth. They can make it cheap and now most of the meth in Utah comes from Mexico.”
Police are concerned with the recent number of arrests and are looking for ways to prevent meth from making a big comeback in Utah County.
Using tips from the community and making good use of informants allows police to find the labs and close them down, Egan said.
“The neighbors are a big help,” Egan said. “They will usually call because of suspicious behavior or a funny smell coming from a nearby home. We also do a lot of trafficking. We know who the meth cooks and users are and we target them.”
Police use informants to call in tips and offer financial rewards for information that leads to an arrest.
They also use criminals to get useful information.
“We will arrest someone for a small crime, they will give us what we need and then we will let them go,” Egan said.
Police and state officials agree that prevention is necessary but a difficult thing to do.
“We try to arrest users before they get too involved,” Egan said. “If we arrest them for position, we can stop them from becoming cooks.”
Early intervention, education, and aggressive prosecution are the best ways to eliminate the problem, said Mark Shurtleff, Utah State Attorney General.
Many people do not understand the dangers of meth, and we are working hard to get he word out, Shurtleff said.
“We are trying to educate the community through press conferences and bill boards,” he said. “One billboard that really works for us says, ”What”s cooking in your neighborhood? Meth is.””
Women are especially misled about the effects of meth, Shurtleff said.
“Women use meth 2-to-1 over men in Utah,” Shurtleff said.
There is pressure for women to look good, so many will turn to meth to lose weight, he said.
“If you think it will help you lose weight, it will,” Shurtleff said. “But it will also kill you.”
Methamphetamine is produced in clandestine labs, also known as “mom and pop” labs. The labs can be set up in residential homes, barns, garages, back rooms of businesses and vehicles.
Meth cooks can buy the chemicals need to make meth at local stores and can find the recipe to cook meth on the Internet.
State officials are working to educate retail stores about the precursor chemicals used to make meth.
“Most ingredients used to cook meth can be bought at a convenience store,” Shurtleff said. “We are providing stores with lists, pictures, and posters to help them monitor their sales. We are also letting them know that it is a felony to sell large amounts of precursor chemicals.”
Police agree that educating stores is vital.
“Most people don”t know what they are looking for, but they know when they see something suspicious,” Egan said. “When you see a long-haired freak coming into your store and buying 4,000 cold pills, you know something is wrong.”
The training has worked for the Intermountain Farmers stores in Utah, Egan Said.
“We took a first hand approach,” said Derk Winn, assistant manager of the Spanish Fork Intermountain Farmers store. “Two or three years ago we started requiring people buying iodine crystals to provide a drivers license, sign a release form, and tell us what they were using it for.”
The stores do not sell the crystals anymore, and if they see anything suspicious, managers will turn it over to the police, Winn said.
Education is helping, but state officials are being aggressive from an enforcement standpoint.
“We have hired two state prosecutors who do nothing but prosecute meth cases,” Shurtleff said. “They have prosecuted well over 100 felony cases in those two years. We are not pleading down either. We are putting the criminals in jail and driving them out of business.”
The danger of meth is in its powerful addictive nature, Shurtleff said.
It is comparable to cocaine but the high it provides is more intense and lasts much longer, said Kimberly Jackson, primary therapist at the Cirque Lodge, a residential rehabilitation center in Sundance.
“It is an instant working drug with very few withdrawal symptoms,” Jackson said. “You can only track it in the blood for a limited time. If someone uses Friday night, they will test clean by Sunday morning. It goes out of your system very quickly.”
The addictive nature of meth is really great, said Timothy Adam, licensed clinical social worker for the Gathering Place, an outpatient rehabilitation center in Provo.
“People can get hooked after the first use,” Adam said. “People want the high again because it is quick and powerful.”
Breaking the addiction is difficult and not as easy as mot people think, Shurtleff said.
“People in Utah think they can take care of it by talking to their bishop or pastor,” Shurtleff said. “It”s not that easy. It is one of the most addictive drugs and so hard to get off of.”
Meth users will show a number of symptoms, including weight loss, tooth decay, loss of hair, chest pain, and increased physical activity.
“It causes sleeplessness,” Adam said. “Some people on meth stay awake for weeks at a time.”
Symptoms of prolonged use resemble those of schizophrenia and include anger, paranoia and hallucinations.
Meth users also tend to get involved in other crimes, Egan said.
“Almost all of the identity theft we see is meth related,” Egan said. “Users will steal checkbooks and write forged checks to get money for Meth. We also see a lot of violent crimes, especially domestic violence. We see tons with Meth psychosis who are paranoid and will turn on their wife or their mother.”
Other problems such as spreading AIDS, HIV, and Hepatitis C through IV needles; loss of work productivity; explosions and fires in meth labs and car accidents are directly related to meth use.
Meth gained popularity in Utah in the early ”90s when it moved west from California.
It caught on in the state because it was so easy to produce and was profitable for meth cooks, Shurtleff said.
“People could make it for pennies and make a lot of money,” Shurtleff said. “It was also a lot easier than paying someone to smuggle it into the state for them.”
Police know methamphetamine is a continuing problem in Utah County, but they want it gone, Egan said.
“We are working hard to know where the labs are and to find those using,” Gustman said.
Patience and perseverance is the only way to get rid of meth, Egan said.