Dangers posed by methamphetamine are not limited to those who make or use the highly addictive drug, and that should concern everyone, a panel of professionals agreed during a recent forum unveiling a new statewide educational campaign.
“ We’re all paying the price,” said Jackie Steele, commonwealth’s attorney for Laurel and Knox counties, who organized the educational forum at the London Community Center.
With the number of methamphetamine incidents at record levels across the state, more and more innocent people are being impacted — not only emergency responders and health care workers, but on work sites, in our neighborhoods and in our schools, Steele said.
The dangers from meth were highlighted by a panel comprised of EMS, pharmacy, waste management, education and law enforcement officials.
“This is something that affects all of us. It’s innocent people who will be harmed,” said State Sen. Tom Jensen (R-London), who attended the meeting. “We need to take care of Kentucky citizens … and protect the kids. This drug is different from any other drug. It’s being made by people out there who don’t really care.”
Known as “One Step Misery: Kentucky Meth Epidemic,” the new campaign — spearheaded by Appalachia HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), Operation UNITE, the Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Narcotic Officers’ Association — explains the problem and why people should be concerned.
“We have a simple solution to this problem,” Steele said. “Require a prescription for cold and allergy medications containing the drug pseudoephedrine.”
“Pseudoephedrine is the only ingredient that cannot be substituted in the manufacturing process,” noted Vic Brown, director of Kentucky HIDTA. Requiring a prescription for the 15 products containing pseudoephedrine is “a necessary inconvenience” that all citizens should be willing to accept.
“We’re not banning the drug,” Brown emphasized. “We’re just asking that people be required to get a prescription from their doctor.”
“It is a sacrifice that we all have to make,” agreed Brittany Reid, a retail pharmacist. “There are alternatives (to pseudoephedrine products) that work just as well.”
In the two states that have required a prescription for pseudoephedrine, Oregon and Mississippi, there has been no public outcry, according to officials from those states interviewed for the presentation. And, in both states, the number of meth lab incidents has decreased 96 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
As of August 31 there have been 809 methamphetamine lab incidents reported in Kentucky, according to the KSP. This is 20.7 percent over the same time last year when Kentucky set an all-time record of 1,080 incidents.
“It’s madness,” said Dan Smoot, deputy director for UNITE. “Our numbers are spiraling out of control.”
Both Brown and Smoot noted that a single meth lab incident may involve one or more meth labs, which can be no larger than a 20-ounce plastic drink bottle. That increases the danger to the public.
It is not uncommon for children living in homes where meth is produced to become contaminated by the toxic chemicals, officials said, adding that other children are exposed when they go to school. These children are often neglected or abused because their parents are so focused on sustaining their addiction.
“I think the biggest trauma is that the kids end up in foster care,” noted Laurel County School Superintendent David Young. “It is a true problem … and it’s something that can be addressed very easily.”
Emergency medical responders are “very vulnerable” to the toxic chemicals created by making methamphetamine, noted James Hacker, CEO of Ambulance Inc., of Laurel County. Seemingly routine calls can quickly turn into a hazardous situation.
“ You never know what you’re going to walk into,” Hacker said.
If a meth-exposed individual is placed into an ambulance, the crew and unit must be removed from service for hours so they can be decontaminated. If multiple calls are received at the same time, this could delay response for law-abiding citizens.
Law enforcement officials also face hidden dangers.
Officers routinely stumble upon meth labs while responding to other calls, said Capt. Derek House of the London Police Department, noting London Police Chief Stewart Walker still has complications from being overcome by the toxic fumes several years ago.
“ It has simply overwhelmed us,” House said. “We do not have enough people on the street to deal with the number of complaints that come in.”
“If more people would take an interest in it maybe we could get something done,” added Laurel County Sheriff John Root.
Often chemicals and other ingredients used during the manufacturing process are discarded without regard to the health and safety of others.
Gerald Poff, who operates Poff Carting Services, said businesses need to be aware of how meth — and drug abuse in general — impacts them.
In the past two years, Poff said his waste collection teams have experienced three incidents where meth labs were found in the garbage. “The last one actually caught on fire in the rear of the truck,” he said.
Another hidden cost is that absorbed by owners of property where methamphetamine is being produced.
Several of the approximately 75 people attending the meeting noted they have had to pay about $3,000 to remove contamination to make their property rentable.
Even a modest reduction in the number of meth lab incidents in Kentucky would result in millions of dollars in savings to taxpayers for meth site cleanups, housing drug offenders and treating people injured by exposure to the chemicals or injured in meth lab explosions.
Previous attempts to make pseudoephedrine available only by prescription failed under a multimillion lobbying effort by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents drug makers.
Jenson, who led the effort in 2011 that passed in committee but never got a floor vote, promised to continue the fight next year.
“ Legislators will do something if the citizens demand it,” Jenson promised. “When the people demand it, the politicians will act.”
For more information about One Step Misery, or to schedule a presentation for a group or organization, contact Operation UNITE at 1-866-678-6483.