DOVER — A steady chemical storm is creeping into the state.
Illegal methamphetamine cooking and use is on the rise. And so are arrests.
Since September, state police said, there’s been an average of one methamphetamine laboratory busted per week in the area.
“If police are taking down a lab a week, then you’ve got some significant demand,” said Jim Copple, who has studied the meth trade for years as part of Strategic Applications International, a nonprofit organization.
“Typically when meth is just arriving in an area and produced at a very local level, more sophisticated methods of moving and buying are soon to follow.
“That opens up the door for organized criminal activity and gang trafficking, which is what has happened at emerging hot spots up and down the East Coast.”
The underground drug culture is apparently embracing its First State arrival, completing a journey that began years ago on the West Coast and then ravaged towns in the Midwest.
“Meth has been largely tearing apart the Midwest for a long time,” said Dr. Marc Richman of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. “There’s a massive problem with it in many areas.
“Myself and other colleagues have been bracing ourselves and hoping like heck it would not get here too quickly.”
Dr. Richman said an informal survey of treatment providers found that people have been seeking help but addiction is not widespread.
The stimulant is comparable to the designer drug “bath salts” that tore through Delaware in 2011 with a wave of delusional, aggressive behaviors causing safety to concerns to users and anyone in their vicinity.
The drug commonly referred to by street names such as crank, powder, haze, crystal, ice or glass can be ingested through smoking through a glass pipe, injection by needle, eating or snorting.
The high lasts up to 12 hours.
Common effects include massive amounts of energy, cloud-like euphoria, increased sexual libido, blood pressure and body temperature.
“If it becomes as epidemic as it has in the Midwest, it will quickly devour our health system,” Dr. Richman said. “Folks quickly get addicted to meth and the behavioral effects are hard to counteract. It’s in the realm of bath salts regarding the violent, psychotic behavior that can occur.”
Homemade and consumed
According to Milford Police Department detectives, the $100 cost for a gram of methamphetamine is more expensive than prescription pills and heroin, depending on the quality.
State police said meth rivals the price of cocaine.
Pills and heroin bags typically cost $10 to $12, Milford Police detective Dwight Young said.
Det. Young said two recent laboratory busts were not rare, but represented a growing trend of sales in the Kent and Sussex areas that Milford covers.
“We have dealt with labs on numerous occasions over the past six months of 2012,” Det. Young said.
While arrests are rising, those seeking help and treatment are not following suit, said Brandywine Counseling CEO Dr. Lynn Fahey.
“I checked with state police who said there is definitely an increase in arrests and meth labs located, but that’s not translating into increased treatment services yet,” Dr. Fahey said.
Unlike the heroin trade that typically uses runners to import bricks of the drug from metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and New York City to small-town Delaware, methamphetamine is typically home grown and consumed within a few miles of origin.
An arrest last week in Harrington showed the tools of the trade used when manufacturing methamphetamine — plastic funnels, plastic bags containing a liquid from ice packs, bottle lye and empty blister packs from pseudoephedrine in plain view.
In a wooden shed, a mason jar and gas generator were also located.
“The majority of people who are making it are using it,” said Delaware State Police Master Cpl. Fournier said.
Detectives tasked with locating manufacturers are often first tipped off through confidential informants and through Crime Stoppers tips, police said.
Delaware law requires photo ID to be presented when buying Sudafed over the counter at a pharmacy, which allows for some documentation of potential supply gathering for meth manufacturing.
“Information often flows into the drug unit, and our investigators can begin looking for people purchasing large over the counter substances,” Cpl. Fournier said. “After assistance from pharmacies and businesses a pattern of who’s buying what can begin to be established.”
Meth investigations and enforcement are dangerous and time-consuming, police said.
Recent Delaware arrests came after weeks and months of investigation, and search warrants were executed with local and state police, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Decontamination Units and fire company personnel to respond if a volatile chemical explosion erupts.
Unlike the fictionalized hit television series “Breaking Bad” on AMC, real life meth cookers are not clear-headed high school chemistry teachers who abstain from the stuff themselves and stay clear of the street trade.
Mistakes can happen when amateur users mix volatile chemicals under the haze of addiction.
“Safety is always a concern when someone is making illegal drugs. They can be explosive, toxic and deadly,” Det. Young said.
Ellen Malenfant, co-manager of DNREC’s Emergency Response Team, said decontamination units go to work after donning protective clothing as protection from strong bases and acids, reactive metals and solvents, fire hazards and corrosive chemicals that can explode or create fire hazards.
The Little Creek Fire Department assists operations in Kent County, along with emergency responders in Sussex County and the Elsmere Fire Department in New Castle County.
Afterward, whatever is determined to be waste is disposed.
Ms. Malenfant would not disclose how chemicals are eradicated.
‘Bitten, scratched, kicked’
Threats to safety are not unique to laboratory settings, however. Folks on a “crank” high are lethal threats to the health of those taking them into custody and also treating them medically.
Dr. Kelly Abbrescia has been an Emergency Room physician at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital in Dover for 10 years and in the treatment arena for much longer than that. She’s been bitten, scratched, kicked at and spit on by those under a pharmaceutical influence.
The symptoms are so predictable that Dr. Abbrescia said she can spot a meth user coming before the case is presented.
Patients, guarded by police, are usually in a state of delirium — confused and sweaty with a racing heart rate and elevated body temperature.
Seizures are quite possible, and continuous thrashing makes inserting a powerful sedative IV problematic.
Often, a needle injection is the only avenue to ward off muscle breakdown known as “Rhabdo” and kidney failure.
Just last weekend, police officers, security and nurses were all needed to harness the mania long enough to introduce sedatives to a patient’s system.
Dr. Abbrescia was thankful for a large trauma room added during Bayhealth’s recent expansion, since meth-mania patients should be kept isolated.
“It’s a line you have to teeter on — treating the patient and maintaining your own safety,” Dr. Abbrescia said. “Police and security do a tremendous job handling much of the safety aspect, but everyone who has dealt with a case goes out of the ER and breathes a sigh of relief when the situation has calmed down.”
Dr. Abbrescia said methamphetamine cases are not close to the bath salts scourge that attacked Delaware in rapid fashion during 2011. While that trend overwhelmed ERs with several cases a day at its height, meth abusers have trickled in every few days.
Dover criminal defense attorney John R. Garey, who also served the state as a prosecutor in the Office of the District Attorney, has worked both sides of drug-related cases.
He said he had not seen an increase in methamphetamine-related cases come his way, but knows of the perils involved with using any illicit drugs.
“As a defense attorney I can say that folks are better off seeking treatment before the criminal justice system becomes involved,” Mr. Garey said. “Once that happens, you’re often under court-mandated orders to coerce compliance, and criminal matters can lead to jail time and even more problems.”
Those problems include the issues that come with substance abuse which require financial resources often supported by burglaries and robberies. When the state’s rise in heroin use came to light months ago, law enforcement said that break-ins and other crimes of opportunity elevated in a desperate attempt to feed the cost of the habit.
“Speaking generically, statistics show that if a person has substance abuse issues, the chances are increased that they will come through the criminal justice system,” Mr. Garey said.
While methamphetamine use is rising, it’s following the trend of what came before it such as powder and rock cocaine, heroin, bath salts from years ago. Dr. Abbrescia said she could remember years ago when PCP presented many of the same challenges that meth does now.
“Substance abuse issues tend to circle around whatever is in vogue at the time,” Mr. Garey said.
Staff writer Craig Anderson
can be reached at 741-8296
Follow him on Twitter @DSNAnderson.