By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Adams County is king when it comes to the manufacture of methamphetamine in Illinois.
The Illinois State Meth Response Team seized 78 labs in Adams County in 2012. No county had more meth lab seizures that year. It marked the third straight year that Adams County led the state in seized labs. Numbers for 2013 won't be finalized until the end of January 2014, but preliminary numbers indicate that Adams County will top 70 meth labs again.
Since the state started seeing an uptick in meth manufacturing in 2009, Adams County's 197 labs seized leads the state. In fact, Adams County has twice as many meth lab seizures as all but three counties in the state for each of the past two years.
"It's as bad as it's been since I've been around," Master Sgt. Patrick Frazier, leader of the West Central Illinois Task Force, said of the area's meth problem. "It's plentiful."
Quincy Police Chief Rob Copley says he's never seen anything like the meth invasion.
"This is the most devastating drug epidemic I've ever seen," Copley said. "It ruins people's lives. It's destruction."
Adams County State's Attorney Jon Barnard said his office, which prosecutes the cases, is dealing with a "tsunami."
"We thought we were over the hump in terms of the effectiveness of our eradication efforts and prevalence of its usage," Barnard said. "Unfortunately and much to our chagrin, meth has experienced a significant and ominous resurgence in the last four or five years."
The statistics support Barnard.
The meth problem was at its worst in Illinois in 2005 when a record 973 meth labs were seized. The Legislature took action by enacting the Methamphetamine Control and Community Protection Act on Sept. 11, 2005. The act was made to strengthen state laws for those who use, manufacture and distribute meth. All meth-related charges were made felonies under the act. The most serious meth charges reached the level of a Class X felony, which had been reserved for the most serious violent crimes.
Also in 2005, the Illinois State Police created six Meth Response Teams that were spread throughout the state to help fight the battle. It is their job to clean up the labs and help assist local law enforcement agencies battle the meth problem.
The stricter laws and added enforcement worked for a while. Meth lab seizures dropped dramatically. Just two years later, the state was dealing with less than half of the labs than it did in 2005, as only 446 labs were seized. By 2008, only 390 labs were found in the entire state.
So why did meth become so popular in Adams County?
First, the meth manufacturers adapted.
During the boom in the mid-2000s, only a few people knew how to manufacture the drug. It was common for farmers to have their anhydrous ammonia tanks stolen by people who wanted to manufacture meth.
"If you look back, there was more of a top-down mentality," said Illinois State Police Master Sgt. David Roll, a member of the Meth Response Team based in Quincy. "You had a few big cooks."
Also, the emergence of pseudoephedrine as the main ingredient to make meth changed the game.
Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant medicine designed to treat stuffy noses and other problems caused by the common cold, hay fever or sinus infection. It also has replaced anhydrous ammonia as the key piece to the meth-making puzzle. It took the fight out of the farmlands and into the drugstores.
Illinois has tried to fight pseudoephedrine purchases by making stores put the medicine under lock and key and behind counters. The state also requires people who buy pseudoephedrine to show identification for each purchase. People are limited to buying 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine a day and just 9 grams in a 30-day period.
All of the items it takes to make meth — a list that includes pseudoephedrine, lithium batteries, starter fluid, drain cleaner and lye — are legal to buy. The ease to get all of the items they need in one area may make Quincy a hot spot for meth makers. Quincy's proximity to two neighboring states — Missouri and Iowa — also makes it easy for people to buy supplies in those states and still make the product here.
"We're not around Chicago or a bigger town," Adams County Sheriff Brent Fischer said. "The heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine isn't as accessible at a good price. What is at a good price is something that you can buy at a drugstore or convenience store and go home and make it yourself."
"Quincy's shopping is unique in that everyone travels to the city," Frazier said. "I don't know if it contributes to the number of meth encounters, because we have all of the ingredients in one place. Everyone from the surrounding area comes here, and it's all available on one street, basically."
Roll has seen a migration of the drug from Missouri.
"You get pretty well versed in meth when you live in this area," he said. "It just seems to be a culture here. It's the drug of choice for so many people, methamphetamine. Looking back, we used to think we could blame it on Missouri for making tougher laws years ago. You were starting to see a bunch of meth people come to Illinois because the penalties weren't nearly as severe, initially, going back to the early 1990s. Then laws in Illinois progressively got more strict."
The drug has affected people in all walks of life. No section of Quincy or the county is immune from meth's reach.
"There is no geographic or stereotypical type of person who uses this stuff," Fischer said. "It could be anybody. It could be anywhere.
"Back in the day, you used to have to be in a remote area because of the fumes. Now, you can do it in a car."
COME BACK: This is the first in a six-part series that takes an in-depth look at the "meth mess" in Adams County. Click here to see what stories we'll bring you the rest of the week.