Local law enforcement grappling with 'surge' in meth

David Floyd • Feb 23, 2020 at 8:30 AM

While the opioid epidemic has dominated national conversations for years, at least one local legal official believes there’s another drug that needs some renewed attention: Meth.

“It is amazing to me that it is completely common now to see pounds and kilos being picked up, which never used to be the case,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kat Dahl told Johnson City commissioners during a meeting on Feb. 17.

Dahl, who works in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greeneville, has served in her position since September, which is funded by Johnson City and through grant money.

“I think the national conversation is probably still in the works, it’s probably coming,” she said. “To me, it seems like people aren’t aware of just how bad it’s getting.”

In 2019, the Johnson City Police Department’s special investigations squad seized 2,033.81 grams of meth, up from 832.7 grams in 2018 and 1,715.72 grams in 2017. The squad also seized 230 oxycodone “dosage units” in 2019, up from 13 in 2018 and 128 in 2017.

Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner said patrol officers also seize plenty of meth, so these numbers provide a snapshot of the problem specifically from the division that specializes in these investigations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving “psychostimulants with abuse potential,” a category that includes meth, increased from 0.2 in 1999 to 0.8 in 2012. It experienced a sharper incline between 2012 and 2018, increasing an average of 30% per year to a rate of 3.9 in 2018.

“I was warned that the surge of meth was a very big problem in this area,” Dahl told commissioners. “When I was here (in 2014, 2015), meth was certainly an issue at that point, but it’s nowhere near where it is now.”

Dahl said the area appears to be on the frontlines of the meth problem.

“I think that’s something that we have still kind of yet to reckon with,” she said.

While regulations on pill mills and prescriptions have made it more difficult to obtain opioids, Dahl said meth is cheap and popping up in previously unreported quantities.

“If you’re looking to get high, it’s the easiest way to do it it at the moment,” she said. “There are always going to be those that prefer opiates or meth or vice versa, but for addicts that are just looking for a fix, they’re going to go to what’s available and right now what’s available is meth.”

Capt. Matt Howell with the JCPD’s criminal investigation division, which includes the special investigations squad, said officers are seeing more meth than they have in the past, which stems in large part from the increased supply and cheaper price. He said most of it comes from larger cities in the Southeast like Atlanta.

“As the old theory goes, drugs go north and the money goes south,” he said.

Turner said officials believe much of the meth that ends up in the area is manufactured in Mexico, but noted some of it could be produced domestically as well. Turner said he doesn’t have access to data from similar-sized cities in the South, but expects what Johnson City is seeing is comparable to other communities.

Howell noted many of the Johnson City Police Department’s cases originate from complaints from citizens.

“They’re in their neighborhoods everyday, and they see things that cause them concern,” he said. “We would encourage people if they do see suspicious activity to call 911.”

Dahl said she’s also seeing younger and younger defendants.

“Several years ago I would never see 18 or 19 year olds involved with meth,” she said. “It always seemed to be the more hardcore users and traffickers that were addicted to this particular drug, but you’re seeing people who are barely of legal age using this.”

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