by DAVE O'BRIEN
Portage County law enforcement is finding illegal, clandestine methamphetamine labs in larger numbers this year, and are blaming the increase on meth "cooks" using new, simplified techniques in their manufacturing.
Police in Portage County have found the components of meth labs in everything from backpacks, car trunks, bathrooms, basements, attics, garages and sheds.
While the labs used to be confined to rural areas because of their size and the need for cooks to keep their illegal activity away from prying eyes and sensitive noses, some police officials say more and more the labs are being found in residential and urban settings.
Portage County Sheriff David Doak said agents of the Portage County Drug Task Force do a "tremendous job" of shutting down such labs. However, the illegal labs have proliferated in recent years because new manufacturing techniques make it possible to cook the drug in a two-liter soda pop bottle, variously known as the "one-pot" or "shake-and-bake" method.
Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation statistics show that between October 2011 and October 2012, 600 meth labs were found and dismantled in Ohio. Between October 2012 and May 2013, 575 labs were busted.
By the last week in June, Portage County drug task force agents had discovered and dismantled 65 meth labs. In all of 2012, they found 80 and seized 182 grams of the finished drug.
"We're darn near up to that now," Doak said.
IN ALL OF 2011, the drug task force found only 15 meth labs, and seized less than a gram of the finished product, according to Doak and his 2012 annual report.
The cooks are getting more brazen. A meth lab bust by the drug task force on Cherry Lane on the western shore of Lake Brady in Franklin Township on Jan. 5 was repeated only three weeks later on Jan. 29 when the same crew of cooks were found in another house on West Shore Drive, a four-minute walk from the first location. Several defendants were sentenced to prison in those cases.
Kent recently saw a raid by the drug task force on property in the 900 block of West Main Street, during which three people were arrested. Kent police Lt. Jim Prusha said the trend in meth labs found in the city seems to be "similar for the past five or six years."
"We've had those types, the little mobile ones in cars, too," he said.
The process requires perfectly legal chemicals -- acetone, lye, red phosphorus, denatured alcohol, lithium and anhydrous ammonia -- as well as fuel that can be purchased anywhere you can find camping supplies.
Glass or plastic containers, plastic tubing and coffee filters also are frequently involved. The exact process is easily learned from other meth cooks and can be found online.
Ohio pharmacies, which sell cold medicine containing the pseudoephedrine the meth cooks need to make the drug, are now part of a national database tracking the sale of ingredients related to meth manufacturing. Law enforcement uses the information to track patterns and monitor organized gang activity.
Meth cooks send accomplices to purchase ingredients at different pharmacies, an activity known as "smurfing," to avoid arousing suspicion or appearing on state databases.
"TEN PEOPLE may buy one box each and then take it to the cook," Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver recently wrote on his department's Facebook page. He called the meth epidemic a "blight" on society.
Brimfield police have, in the past, frequently found meth cooks doing their business in the township's hotels at Interstate 76 and Route 43. Some have come from out of state, such as in the case of an Alabama man arrested at one of the hotels in March 2012, or simply across the border from Summit County.
The increased criminal activity related to drugs -- burglaries, thefts, robberies and financial crimes -- has put a strain on law enforcement in Portage County, Doak said.
"We're out of jail space. It's just a vicious cycle," he said. "Collectively, law enforcement is focused on doing stuff with the drugs, because a lot of the rest of the crime is related to that. We've tried to make more of an effort on the enforcement end with the drug stuff."
Much of the activity on the enforcement end comes down to staffing and budgetary constraints, Doak said. The ranks of the drug task force recently were bolstered by the addition of officers from Ravenna and Hiram, he noted.
"If I had another 12 to 14 agents and about $1 million to spend through the end of the year, we might be able to knock a heck of a dent in it," he said.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4157
Facebook: Dave O'Brien, Record-Courier