News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

February 15, 2014

Meth epidemic impacting everyone living in Wabash Valley

Up to 80 percent of Vigo County Jail inmates in on drug charges

TERRE HAUTE — Think of the one thing that has affected Terre Haute the most in the past two decades. It’s not the arts. Or the river. Or the economy.

It’s methamphetamine, according to local crime fighters who have battled the growth of local mom-and-pop drug production.

In a panel discussion with students and staff at Indiana State University last week, police officers laid it on the line about the meth epidemic in Terre Haute and how it affects the lives of everyone living and working in the Wabash Valley, whether they realize it or not.

“I have fond memories of what Terre Haute used to be like before meth came to town,” said Sgt. Chris Gallagher of the Terre Haute Police Department. “It affects everything you care about. You can mention something, and I can tie it to meth labs in two moves.”

Gallagher is one of the most vocal local advocates of limiting access to pseudoephedrine, or PSE, the primary ingredient in the clandestine production of meth. He claims that about 70 to 90 percent of cold medicine containing PSE that is sold in the United States is used for the production of illegal meth.

Representatives of the Indiana Retail Council, which represents the merchant industry that profits from the sale of PSE products, questions the accuracy Gallagher’s contention. The Indiana State Medical Association also stands against a prescription requirement on cold and allergy medicine containing PSE, citing a hardship on doctors who would have to issue prescriptions.

Another police officer who has seen meth up close is Greg Ferency, a detective with the Vigo Drug Task Force now assigned to the FBI. He called meth a “brutal central nervous system stimulant,” and when users get high from the drug, they are attempting a “controlled overdose” that doesn’t kill them.

“You won’t get meth from a guy in a hoodie out on a street corner,” Ferency warned the students. “You will be introduced to this drug at a social setting by someone you trust.”

Meth can be used as a stimulant to help work production or long study hours or to boost energy. But it is highly addictive, and the toll it takes on the body is severe.

Officer Ian Loomis of the ISU Police is the only certified drug recognition expert in the county, and he primarily works the evening shifts, when drug users and pushers are most likely to attract the attention of police.

There is a specific correlation in stepping up enforcement of impaired drivers and a decrease in fatal drug and alcohol crashes in a community, Loomis said.

“When you start impacting innocent people … that’s where it becomes more of an issue,” he said of the reason he embraces making the streets safer for the public.

Meth does not fit a specific segment of society, said panelist Chris Wrede, a Vigo County deputy prosecutor.

“This drug does not have any other defined parameters other than it’s gonna be addictive, and it’s gonna kill you,” said Wrede, who has watched the meth problem grow in Vigo County since his early days as a prosecutor more than a decade ago.

A survey has shown that 80 percent of the inmates in the Vigo County Jail were arrested for drug-related crimes. Wrede said he is passionate about pursuing the meth problem because of its effect on the community’s children.

Meth-addicted parents will often forget that they even have children, he said, and the children are left to feed and take care of themselves while their parents are cooking drugs or passed out after a days-long high.

The Department of Child Services is becoming overwhelmed with children taken from meth homes, he said.

Gallagher noted that children imitate their environment, and meth has been a problem for so long that there are now third-generation meth cookers in the county.

“Everyone in their family and their community is using,” he said, “and they become almost nomadic in roaming around gathering enough supplies to make another batch. It’s about contributing to the well-being of the ‘tribe.’”

Other states — Oregon and Mississippi — have passed legislation to restrict the sale of PSE to prescriptions only. Gallagher said those states have seen dramatic reductions in their meth lab problems.

Indiana’s proposed legislation, however, never makes it out of committee at the Statehouse each year, and Gallagher blamed that on the retail, medical and pharmaceutical lobbies that want to protect profits from sales of PSE.

“We don’t have a lobbyist who can spend 365 days a year trying to counterbalance the PR put out by the retail and drug industries,” Gallagher said. He noted that some independent pharmacies have agreed to sell PSE products by prescription only, but the national chain retail stores will not place that limit on the product.

When asked how police and prosecutors stay positive in their fight to eliminate meth in the community, the officers told their ISU audience that they have to look at the big picture.

“I enjoy my job,” Wrede said, “and I want to put away people who harm children.”

“I get paid every two weeks,” Ferency joked, but he added that he has had reformed meth-addicts thank him years later for saving their lives by arresting them for selling and using drugs.

“You’re not going to get that from a burglar or a bank robber,” Ferency said of the gratitude.

Gallagher said he tries not to think about the meth problem as a lost cause for any more than 30 minutes per day.

“If you dwell on the battle with ‘big money’ and the retail industry, you can become a toxic and bitter person,” he said.

Loomis said that the meth problem has reached the ISU campus from the surrounding community. Just recently, he said, a male student was arrested in a residence hall for dancing naked in a public area. That student was high on meth and other drugs, and it took six police officers to subdue him because of the drug energy he was experiencing.

For those who think they might be living near drug activity or witnessing drug manufacturing in their neighborhoods, the officers recommend reporting that information to police as often as possible, so they can investigate and build a case, if one exists.

Anyone suspecting the manufacturing or dealing of methamphetamine is encouraged to contact local police, or the Indiana State Police at 765-653-4114.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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