Police across the state have uncovered a puzzling trend: The number of seizures of marijuana and methamphetamine has dropped drastically in recent years, while usage of the drugs continues to soar.
Authorities said the reason stems from greater sophistication: Many marijuana growers are developing potent plants inside their homes and barns in elaborate grow operations, while Mexican drug cartels have established networks to ship cheap, yet powerful methamphetamine into Ohio, reducing the need to manufacture the drug here.
In fiscal year 2012, authorities reported shutting down 607 methamphetamine labs across the state. Five years later, police closed 239, according to records police departments filed with the Ohio Attorney General’s office. That’s a drop of 61 percent.
The amount of marijuana uprooted has also dwindled. In 2010, authorities pulled a record 105,121 plants, many of which were planted in large plots in Southeast Ohio’s rural hillsides. This year, authorities chopped down 20,468 plants, a reduction of 81 percent, the records show. Most of the plants were spotted in an eradication program in which state agents use a helicopter.
Across the state, as heroin and synthetic opioids fuel a deadly epidemic, police, lawmakers and addiction services professionals also are struggling with the increased usage of marijuana and methamphetamine.
The Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network, which tracks drug trends, reported earlier this year that the availability of marijuana and methamphetamine has been on the increase across the state. In Southeast Ohio, for instance, methamphetamine “was as widely available as heroin,” state reports said. In Columbus, authorities said, methamphetamine “produced in ‘superlabs’ in Mexico has been shipped with heroin.”
Exactly how and when Mexican cartels began targeting users in Ohio and other Midwest states is unclear. But officials said the cartels have found fertile ground here. The organizations produce the high-quality methamphetamine and distribute it through couriers, who ferry it across the border.
That’s the opposite of how it worked in Ohio for many years.
Meth cookers brewed a concoction that featured anhydrous ammonia, a farm fertilizer. Later, they simplified it by mixing household ingredients that included cold tablets in a 2-liter pop bottle known as “the one-pot cook.” The attempts to mirror the work of Walter White on the television series “Breaking Bad” were so inept that cookers blew the roofs off homes and buildings.
The attempts also produced a subpar product, authorities said.
“Today, there is better quality and better prices,” said Joseph Pinjuh, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Cleveland who has handled major drug cases for years. “We’re now seeing kilo-sized amounts of methamphetamine.”
Dennis Cavanaugh, the leader of the Lorain County Drug Task Force, agreed. He said super-labs are producing larger and purer quantities of the drug at lower prices. Cavanaugh’s unit recently plugged a California-to-Ohio pipeline that brought pounds of pure methamphetamine into rural Eaton Township, outside of Elyria, he said.
The drop in the number of methamphetamine operations can be seen most clearly in Summit County. In fiscal 2012, police reported shuttering 207 methamphetamine labs, nearly a third of all the labs closed in the state that year.
This fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2016, through Sept. 30, 2017, Summit County officials broke up just 10 labs.
Counties across the state have seen a reduction in local drug manufacturing, as well. Take Noble County, population 14,000, in Southeast Ohio, a county smaller than the city of Rocky River. Sheriff Robert Pickenpaugh said the number of seizures of one-pot labs there has dropped dramatically. He said he believes that drug cartels are funneling the drug to Ohio via drug mules, as Interstate 77 provides easy access for dealers.
“It’s coming in from Mexico,” Pickenpaugh said. “It’s good, and it’s cheap.”
In a recent report, the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network agreed. It also said the drug costs about $100 a gram. The report attributed the increase in use of methamphetamine to “the cheaper cost of the drug compared to the cost of other stimulants.”
The substance abuse network is a project of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The report also cited an increase in the availability of high-grade marijuana. Many law enforcement officials attribute that to more Ohio marijuana growers heading inside to raise their crops. Not only is it safer from police and poachers, it also provides a more potent product through hydroponic lighting, climate control and fertilization.
“We see a lot of marijuana here, and we find more indoor grows than outdoor operations,” said Dennis Lowe, the commander of the major crimes unit in Hocking, Fairfield and Athens counties and a former state drug agent. “That has been the trend for years now. In all of my years in law enforcement, the largest cash seizures have always been with marijuana.”