• Vt. avoids major methamphetamine problems, so far
    By
     | March 03,2013
     
    DEA Photo

    Vermont got a methamphetamine scare several years ago, but the feared threat has not materialized, authorities say.

    Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse haven’t taken hold in Vermont like other drugs, and law enforcement officials want to keep it that way.

    While the highly addictive drug made headlines around the state last year, including after what prosecutors said was the biggest bust involving the drug to date in Hancock, only four laboratories were found in the state in 2012 — and only 13 labs have been discovered in Vermont since 2004, according to the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration.

    Almost nine years after police found the first-ever Vermont meth lab in a Shrewsbury kitchen, dire warnings that the stimulant and the toxic, potentially explosive labs would gain traction in the state haven’t come to pass — yet.

    Arrests related to the drug are low, with only 26 arrests last year under the category of methamphetamines/amphetamines kept by the Vermont Criminal Information Center.

    Numbers of people seeking treatment for the drug weren’t available, but Barbara Cimaglio, deputy commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse at the Vermont Department of Health, said the numbers were low.

    “We are not seeing methamphetamine use as a widespread problem at this time in the general population,” Cimaglio said. “We believe that there is a small pocket of people who are likely heavy users, but they are not generally seeking treatment. We believe that the strong messages about the dangers of methamphetamine use has kept use low among the general population.”

    Following the June 2004 arrests at the Shrewsbury lab, law enforcement officials in the state predicted that an increase in methamphetamine activity — if not a full-scale epidemic of the drug — was inevitable.

    “It’s all around us and we’re seeing more of it,” Vermont State Police Detective Michael Smith told a crowd of medical professionals during a presentation in Bennington in 2005. “It’s just a matter of time.”

    Looking at the state of meth crimes in the United States in 2005, it’s easy enough to see how Smith came to that conclusion. While only two labs were found in Vermont that year, thousands were found throughout the South and Midwest states. And even states closer to the Northeast, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, had triple-digit numbers of discovered meth labs.

    By 2012, the number of meth labs found near Vermont had increased with 147 discovered in New York last year and even 13 found in New Hampshire. But four finds a year is still the worst Vermont has seen.

    Why is meth not a big problem in Vermont?

    “We ask ourselves the same question,” said state police Detective Sgt. Kevin Lane, an investigator with the Vermont Drug Task Force. “We’ve watched the explosion of this stuff out West and we’ve been told to get ready ’cause it’s coming but there hasn’t been an explosion here.”

    One factor that Lane said may have stalled the drug’s ascension in Vermont has been the priority that law enforcement gives to meth cases.

    In the most recent laboratory bust in Hancock, police used a confidential informant wearing a wire to make small purchases of meth from makers who told the informant that they had been cooking the drug at a home off Route 125 for less than six months.

    In an affidavit prepared by a member of the Vermont Drug Task Force, alleged members of the meth operation described cooking batches of the drug as often as two to three times a week or as little as once a week.

    The detective who wrote the affidavit said the makers were selling the drug to a handful of buyers, including high school students.

    That level of methamphetamine activity may sound disturbing but it pales in comparison to the quantity of heroin, prescription painkillers, cocaine and crack cocaine distributed in drug rings identified annually in the state.

    That’s a fact not lost on law enforcement, but any amount of methamphetamine activity in the state is too much, Lane said.

    “Any rumor of meth is a high, high priority for us,” he said. “If we get any tips we move aggressively. It’s not that the other drugs being distributed here aren’t important. This is just a higher priority. We don’t want it to be that explosion we’ve seen in other places.”

    Federal prosecutors in Vermont also place greater weight on methamphetamine cases. The U.S. attorney’s office often takes over the prosecution of larger drug cases that are initially arraigned in state courts. But every case big and small involving methamphetamine production and distribution is turned over to the federal prosecutors office, according to U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin.

    “We’ve been fortunate that Vermont is a place where meth has no foothold,” Coffin said. “We want to make sure it stays that way. Our policy is designed to send a specific message that we will be aggressive in prosecuting these cases at the highest level.”

    While state statute allows for a jail sentence of up to five years for the distribution of any quantity of meth — and jail terms of up to 10 years for sales involving 2.5 grams or more — Coffin said the punishments meted out by federal law are even harsher because they are mandatory.

    “Federal law carries a five-year mandatory sentence for 5 grams or more of methamphetamine that is manufactured or distributed,” he said.

    Such harsh penalties haven’t always been handed down in the federal courts in Vermont.

    In 2005, the four people convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in Shrewsbury were given sentences ranging from three years of supervised release to one year behind bars.

    More recently, federal sentences for the manufacture of methamphetamine included a 6½-year sentence last year for a man who produced between 2.4 grams and 3.8 grams of the drug in Barre, a 6½-year sentence last year for an Island Pond man who police said was part of a 13-person meth operation that produced 5 or more grams of the drug, and a 33-month sentence handed down last month for another member of the Northeast Kingdom meth operation.

    While vigilance on the part of law enforcement and vigorous prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office may play some role in deterring the advance of meth, market forces may be playing the biggest role in keeping the drug out of Vermont, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

    Jeffrey Boobar, resident agent in charge for the DEA in Vermont, said the state hasn’t reached the critical mass of meth users that would open the door for bigger drug-distribution networks to move into the market.

    “In Vermont and New England in general there’s mostly really small clandestine labs with mom-and-pop guys producing the meth,” Boobar said. “That’s how it starts in most places until a certain amount of use of the drug develops and the Mexican cartels see the market and move in to flood.”

    But in Vermont, bigger distributors haven’t found conditions to their liking for a number of reasons, Boobar said.

    Some of the barriers in Vermont are now common across the nation. In Vermont, as in most states, buyers are required to show identification and are limited in the amount of cough syrup they can buy that contains pseudoephedrine — a primary ingredient in making meth.

    Ironically, some of the illegal drug use that has plagued Vermont for more than a decade — especially the state’s high percentage use of opiate drugs which produce a high at the opposite end of the scale from meth — has probably played a role too, according to Boobar and other law enforcement officials.

    “The market just isn’t used to meth,” he said. “It never really took hold here.”

    brent.curtis@rutlandherald.com

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