One Pennsylvania DA: ‘Unprecedented amounts’ of drug being seen

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Methamphetamine is making a comeback in the region, and it may be tied to the growing heroin epidemic, according to local law enforcement and treatment specialists.

“In the past few months, we’ve seen unprecedented amounts of methamphetamine in Bucks County and the surrounding areas,” Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said that county is experiencing a hike in overdoses, arrests and deaths tied to meth.

“If anyone thought this drug was going by the wayside, they’re wrong,” said Steele, adding that meth-related deaths have doubled in the last year. The county’s deputy coroner, Alex Balacki, reported 19 meth-related deaths in the first three quarters of 2017, up from eight the entire previous year and two in 2010. These figures do not include the injury-related deaths where meth was found in blood samples, he said.

A number of converging factors are fueling the hike in methamphetamine use, including the drug’s ability to reverse some of the agonizing withdrawal effects that opioid users experience, and higher purity levels and low prices coming from labs outside of the country.

Meth never went away, but federal drug agents are seeing an uptick in seizures and arrests.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reports that methamphetamine is more pure — averaging 90 percent — than it has been in decades and the bulk of what has been discovered in the Philadelphia region is coming from drug cartels, according to Patrick Trainor, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia Field Division. National DEA reports add that most of the meth available in the U.S. is now produced in Mexico and smuggled in at the southwest border, and there is a push among cartels to sell more on the east coast.

Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Agency reports that inbound seizures of methamphetamine from Mexico have increased every year since 2010, but domestic production has declined. Trainor said dealers are avoiding the dangers of producing meth in home labs and turning to online purchases from out-of-country labs that offer a higher quality meth than agents have seen in 20 years.

Locally, officials across the region — in enforcement and drug treatment and prevention — are noticing the drug’s growing availability and its popularity with a market of heroin users.

Many people who are addicted to heroin are turning to meth to “detox,” according officials with the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, one of the largest drug prevention and treatment groups on the region.

In one case, a client opted for meth when the dealer said heroin wasn’t available. Other clients turned to meth because they like to do “uppers” to help offset the effects of “downers.” Many clients have reported that certain amounts of meth counteract the withdrawal.

The influx of the more lethal fentanyl — which caused more deaths last year than heroin — is scaring some users away, Weintraub said.

“Heroin buyers and heroin dealers are converting over to methamphetamine,” he said.

Unlike heroin, which is a depressant, methamphetamine is a stimulant drug usually used as a white, bitter-tasting powder or a pill, according to the NIDA. Crystal methamphetamine is a form of the drug that looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. According to NIDA, methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, a heart attack or organ problems. Methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, fatigue, severe depression, psychosis and intense drug cravings.

Bensalem has seen a more than 400 percent increase in methamphetamine-related arrests in the last two years, jumping from 11 in 2015 to 64 in 2017, according to Fred Harran, the township’s public safety director.

Weintraub said the bulk of the meth being discovered in Bucks County is being produced “chemically off site,” unlike cases more than a decade ago when labs were set up locally in remote pockets of the county.

“Now it’s being produced by drug cartels and being imported here,” he said.

Warminster Chief Jim Donnelly said his department has made more arrests involving methamphetamine in the last 18 months, but numbers weren’t readily available.

“It’s slowly creeping back,” Donnelly said.

David Fialko, a certified prevention and treatment specialist with the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, said the focus on heroin has taken attention off other lethal drugs that may be on the rise but kill in fewer numbers.

“Unfortunately, when you look at the various types of opioids and how easy it is to fatally overdose on these drugs versus methamphetamines, which is typically a less fatal drug, the focus is going to be on the drug which is killing the most people,” he said. “So is there an increase in methamphetamine use? Yes, there has been, but to what degree we are not sure yet. Time will tell.”

Marion Callahan is a reporter for The Doylestown (Pa.) Intelligencer.