Drug problem in Ashland shifting from opiates to meth

ASHLAND – These days, Ashland Police and METRICH drug task force detective Brian Evans get more calls about crystal meth than heroin.

He estimates Ashland police officers find methamphetamine about three to five times as frequently as they find marijuana during traffic stops.

In 2015, just one meth case came across Evans’ desk. In 2016, he saw 17 cases involving the drug. Last year, the number rose to 37. This year alone, the department has had 14 METRICH meth cases, with the drug showing up in more than half the total 22 METRICH cases as of April 11.

Meanwhile, the number of heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil cases combined dropped from 72 in 2016 to 65 in 2017 and is just three so far this year.

Evans noted some cases may involve more than one type of drug and that the METRICH cases he tracks don’t represent all drug cases as some cases initiated by patrol officers are not passed on to the task force.

Though the numbers don’t tell the full story, Evans said, they do reflect a clear shift from one drug problem to another. It’s a shift law enforcement is seeing statewide, including in Ashland County.

Why meth?

So how did meth become the drug of choice for many users?

It may be an evolution of the same drug crisis that has drawn national attention in recent years.

“Local heroin addicts don’t like the fear of dying, and they have found that the meth will get them through the opiate withdrawal,” Evans said, adding the drug is also cheaper than heroin and provides users with a longer high.

Meth has also become easier to get than heroin, Ashland Police Chief David Marcelli said.

“The cartels have switched from heroin to meth, and at one point they were actually giving out samples of meth with heroin purchases,” Marcelli said. “Think about it from a business standpoint: You’re selling a substance that’s killing your customers quickly, so from a business standpoint, you want to keep your customers alive.”

Evans said he has encountered three general types of meth users — heroin users who have switched to meth or use both heroin and meth alternately; adults who start on a prescription drug for weight loss or sleep apnea and are looking for a drug that will give them the same level of energy; and younger users who may try meth after using prescribed amphetamines for conditions like ADHD.

High school students have been caught with meth this year at Loudonville High School and Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center, he said.

Where is it coming from?

Marcelli explained the meth his department is seeing is a “cartel meth from Mexico.”

“It’s pharmaceutical-grade. It’s not somebody making it in a bottle in their car or something,” he said. “Think ‘Breaking Bad,’ instead of some person making it for personal use. It’s a better quality, more strength.”

Police say the meth seems to be flowing into the Ashland community from the Akron area. Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell said he believes drug dealers in Mansfield have not yet gotten their hands on the drug.

“Normally, people went to Columbus to traffick or pick up their heroin,” Marcelli said. “Now it’s Medina or Summit County for meth.”

According to Ohio Drug Task Force data from the state’s Department of Public Safety, task force departments seized 79,406 grams of meth in Summit County in just the first three months of this year — more than double the 38,068 grams they seized throughout the whole year in 2017.

The numbers do not include seizures made by agencies not involved in a task force, such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Why is it a problem?

Marcelli said his department has not yet seen a spike in violent crimes, but the behavior of people with meth addictions leads him to believe it might see such an increase as the meth problem grows.

“The problem with meth is that whereas heroin puts people to sleep, this makes them angry and agitated,” Marcelli said. “It keeps them awake for days at a time. They can be delusional and violent, so it poses a real risk to us and a real risk to the public.”

Evans agreed the risk to the community is significant.

“Heroin is a more dangerous drug to the user, but I feel the methamphetamine is a more dangerous drug to the community as a whole,” Evans said.

He noted that meth users have more energy to commit crimes and may be paranoid. Meth users and dealers seem to be more likely to carry guns than heroin users, he said, often because the paranoia makes them less likely to trust one another.

Meth users may also be less likely to seek treatment voluntarily than people with opioid addictions, said Dennis Dyer, Ashland County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse director.

Dyer said he has not seen meth users coming in for treatment in large numbers, and he has a couple of theories.

“Methamphetamine doesn’t have as much physical dependence,” he said. “They’re not feeling as sick, so in their minds, they think, ‘I’m OK.'”

Opioid users often realize they have a problem and seek treatment when the addiction becomes too expensive, Dyer said. But meth’s cheaper cost for a longer high can make it easier for people to sustain a meth addiction.

While meth may be less likely to kill users quickly, Marcelli said, the drug does come with grave health risks.

“Meth is not a safe substitute for anything. Just because you’re on some sort of prescription drug that’s similar to it does not mean this is a safe alternative,” he said. “Think of it as you’re running your car only on second gear. What that would do to the engine? This is the same thing.

“You’re body is running at the high level with a high heart rate, high metabolic rate. That’s why it ages people.”

What is being done?

Evans said he appreciates that Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell is prosecuting meth cases aggressively.

“As we’ve found associated groups of people bringing it in, we’ve been trying to put together corrupt activity cases,” Tunnell said.

So rather than just being charged for possession, people are being charged as part of a network of drug traffickers.

“It would be very hard to be more aggressive than that,” Tunnell said. “Our plan at the moment is to aggressively enforce and interdict the meth and get out in front of it.”

But Tunnell worries that if meth starts coming into the area from other places, such as Mansfield or Columbus, it may be harder for law enforcement and the courts to contain the problem.

Marcelli said he would like to see more federal and state resources to fight the drug epidemic with enforcement.

“We’re being told chemicals are being shipped through California down to the Mexican border, smuggled into Mexico, made into meth and then smuggled back across the border,” Marcelli said. “If we could interdict some of those substances before they hit the streets, that would be a tremendous help. Additional resources to local and state agencies would certainly help.”

At the community level, he said, “If you see something, report it.”

Marcelli said some of the meth busts and prosecutions in the news lately resulted from tips from the public.

Suspected drug activity can be reported to Ashland Police at 419-289-3639, Ashland County Sheriff’s Office at 419-289-3911 or the METRICH Crime Tip Hotline at 419-522-7463.