Crime & Courts

Officials: York County meth labs down, heroin on the rise

A hazardous materials team clears the scene of a meth lab in York County.
A hazardous materials team clears the scene of a meth lab in York County. HERALD FILE

Business has been slower lately for Senior Solicitor Jennifer Colton, who prosecutes drug cases for the 16th Judicial Circuit. And she says that’s a good thing.

Until recently, Colton prosecuted primarily methamphetamine-related cases. But so far this year, there’s been a sharp decrease in the number of meth labs found or busted in York County from years past.

Crews cleaned up 22 meth labs each in 2013 and 2014, according to numbers provided by the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit. Commander Marvin Brown said they’ve handled six labs so far this year, and haven’t seen one since March.

“At this point last year, we would have been at 11 or 12,” Brown said.

Colton said the sharp decrease is thanks in part to a focus by solicitor Kevin Brackett on prosecutors working more closely with law enforcement to target people manufacturing and supplying meth. Part of this new proactive approach included creating a database of meth manufacturers and their associates.

“It came down to name recognition,” Colton said. “We were able to focus on people involved in meth labs instead of finding a meth lab and arresting the people that were there. The nature in any kind of meth lab is really going to be a conspiracy. It’s almost like a subculture – you knew somebody or knew someone who was involved.”

Disrupting that conspiracy, she said, meant focusing more on the people making the meth than those using it.

“We went after the meth cooks. We didn’t go after the people that were users,” she said. “We didn’t turn them (users) loose, but we focused on getting the heaviest attention on the people who were cooking.”

In recent years, South Carolina has ranked among the top 10 states in the country for manufacturing meth, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. However, the number of meth lab “incidents” for the Palmetto State has decreased from 499 in 2012 to 356 in 2014, mirroring a downward nationwide trend from more than 13,400 incidents in 2012 to just over 9,300 in 2014.

One thing that must be considered when looking at York County’s numbers, Colton says, is that of the six labs discovered this year, only two led to charges because the others were “dead labs” that had been discarded.

So called “one-pot” or “shake and bake” labs are simpler operations that allow the meth cooker to make the drug using basic household supplies, all of which can be carried together in a single backpack. Brown said 21 of the 22 labs discovered last year were of the shake-and-bake variety, which is also the more dangerous method of making meth.

Cleaning up any meth lab, active or discarded, is an expensive and time-consuming operation, Brown said, with a minimum of 10 to 15 officers responding, including hazardous-material crews and the State Law Enforcement Division. Cleanup can take four to five hours and cost taxpayers between $1,000 and $2,500; even more resources will be needed if there’s a fire or explosion associated with a meth lab.

The savings in time and resources is another positive takeaway from the fewer meth labs in York County, which Brown says frees up time for investigators to focus on other crimes. Colton said it has a trickle-down effect on the numbers for other crimes that are often associated with meth.

“It has a broader community effect,” she said. “The one common denominator with a lot of these property crimes is, ‘I’m a drug addict.’ People using meth tend to be more involved with violent crimes and property crimes just because they need the money.”

Since meth cases are down, Colton is now on a rotation prosecuting other types of drug cases – a good thing, she says, because while meth cases have decreased, heroin cases appear to be on the rise.

Brown said known meth users are now getting arrested on heroin charges, which puzzles law enforcement because the two drugs have opposite physiological effects.

“They’re as far apart on the spectrum as you can get,” he said. “The meth addicts – they’re the exact same people we’re charging for heroin now.”

It’s the “supply and demand” cycle drugs rotate through over the years, Brown said, recalling that heroin and marijuana were popular drugs in York County when he started working here in 1976. Cocaine became more popular over the years, and then crack. The powder form of meth was also popular before it was eclipsed by a more potent form called “ice.”

“We’re seeing more heroin and less meth,” he said. “Forty years later, we’re right back where we were.”