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Law Enforcement Fears Growing Spread of Meth In N.H.

KC Police

The number of meth labs found in the New Hampshire is growing faster than in neighboring states. Last year authorities have found more than a dozen meth labs, or lab material dump sites. But law enforcement and health policymakers are looking at what lessons New Hampshire can learn from other states that have already battled meth.

At 6’5” with broad shoulders, Derrick Hentschel is built like a wall. This year, he turned 31 in Concord’s State Prison for Men. Two years ago, Hentschel was arrested and convicted for cooking meth in Claremont.

“As soon as I got arrested, I spent hours in my cell crying, [hah], like a baby…. I’m the poster child for methamphetamines. It destroyed my life. I despise everything about it.”

Hentschel moves slowly in his green jumpsuit. And while he’s soft-spoken and passive today, his past is burdened by a long history of run-ins with the law.

Before he was arrested, he defaulted on a court fine, lost his trucking license and he served a short jail sentence. Then he lost his children into foster care, the youngest of whom was only three weeks old. Hentschel says, when this happened, he spiraled into despair and began producing and using methamphetamine.

"If you can get ahead of this curve and prevent more addiction, you will not suffer that expense..."

“Yea, I was oblivious to the world around me at that time. I didn’t care anymore. After they took my kids…. I can’t put it any other way than I was out of my mind—literally.”

Hentschel learned how to make meth when he was living in Indiana. He says was looking for someone to sell him marijuana, when he met a man named Randy.

“I seen the first person in a parking lot with tattoos and I asked him. And he shows me a chunk of white stuff in his hand and he asked me if I could get rid of it for him…. And the next thing you know, this stranger that I never met in my life was giving me 101 on methamphetamines. Just like that.”

Randy showed him how to cook meth in a traditional lab with external heat sources. But he also showed Hentschel the so-called “shake and bake” method.

“That was just something that he showed me real quick. ‘Oh by the way, you can do it like this too.’”

More and more people in New Hampshire are now making meth this way. Police call it the one-pot method because cooks can produce extremely potent meth in a single, two-liter soda bottle without any heat. They use the energy of lithium batteries to trigger a chemical reaction. It’s much faster, but it’s also extremely dangerous.

“We treat it as if it’s a bomb.”

Trooper First Class Matthew Partington of the New Hampshire State Police is part of the region’s DEA-led Clandestine Lab Task Force. He and his team dispose of these mini-meth labs in full hazmat gear. Not only are many of the chemicals toxic, but if pressure isn’t released from the bottle, it can explode.

“We find them in dumpsters, roadsides, vehicles, backpacks. In town and city parks, riversides. We find them all over the place.”

That’s in stark contrast to before 2010, when his team would only come across a few traditional meth labs in New Hampshire.

“They kinda faded off a little bit but with the emergence of the one-pot, basically New Hampshire has taken the lead in all of the New England states for the different types of labs that have been found.”

In 2008 New Hampshire had only one meth lab incident. Three years later, it reached a high of 15. Just last month in Manchester a fire started in a west side apartment when a meth lab ignited. Police have made three methamphetamine busts in Manchester’s west side this year alone, each within a mile of West High School.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
Three meth labs have been found in Manchester's west side in the past few months alone. Northern two were discovered by police in July. Southern one was discovered in October.

The number of meth lab incidents in New Hampshire is still nowhere near as high as some Midwestern states like Indiana, where Hentschel learned the method, or Missouri.

James Shroba is the acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s St. Louis division. In the early nineties, he witnessed how the first shift to smaller, in-home operations made the meth problem far worse there.

“Anybody that could read and write and measure and had 100-200 bucks in their pocket could make meth. They didn’t need any elaborate glassware, heating mantles, no exact scientific skill. Then we began to see a tremendous explosion in portions of Missouri.”

And that could serve as a lesson to New Hampshire, says the head of Manchester’s undercover narcotics team, Brian LeVeille.

“It’s becoming more and more prevalent. And once it’s here and it gets its foothold, it’s very hard. I mean, you can look at out in the Midwest, it’s a huge problem, methamphetamine. Communities are just devastated once meth takes a foothold.”

In 2006, the federal government stepped in and began regulating the sale of homemade meth’s crucial ingredient: pseudoephedrine. The law requires pharmacists in New Hampshire and across the country to card and track buyers. And it limits the amount an individual can buy to a few grams a day or nine grams a month. But those limits can be easy to evade, so states like Oregon have gone a step further.

“The single most effective action we experienced here was putting pseudoephedrine products behind the counter and then made it a prescription medication.”

Walt Beglau is the District Attorney of Marion County, Oregon. Meth labs there have dropped 96% since 2006. Beglau says without pseudoephedrine, DIY cooks have had their main supply lines choked off.

“Oregon experienced it. And if you can get ahead of this curve and prevent more addiction, you will not suffer that expense and that expense goes all the way down to a local level.”

Mississippi passed a similar law in 2010 and reports the same success. New Hampshire has never tried to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. But in 2006, the house passed a bill to restrict and track sales. It was ultimately trumped by the federal law. Representative Jim MacKay was a sponsor.

“So here it is all these years later and of course we have a significant problem in New Hampshire now with these meth labs.”

MacKay, who’s also chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, says there may be broad support for creating a commission to study solutions like those deployed out West.

 “Part of selling the legislature is always ‘is this gonna save money?’ And obviously the human toll is very serious with that kind of addiction.”

One of those sometimes hidden costs is to the state’s foster care system.

“And in fact, there are some very dangerous home-grown labs where there’re children in the building, so they’re very dangerous.”

Division of Children, Youth and Families estimates about 85% of abuse and neglect cases are related to substance abuse. It costs almost $9000 per kid annually. Right now, DCYF is spending $16 million for about 1800 kids. And MacKay says that makes it a pressing issue for the state.

“I think it’s even more urgent today than it was then.”

But people like Derrick Hentschel know there’s another cost to using and making meth that can’t be measured by dollars and cents.

“I lost my babies. I lost the woman that I loved… Most people come in here and they can do their time and like move throughout the prison system. I’ve spent every day here in regret. And I sit here with my teeth clenched just looking—just waiting for the day to get out of here.”

Hentschel has renewed his trucking license and has been working hard to get parental rights to his kids. He’s due for parole in March. 

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