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Authorities: Mental illness, synthetic meth complicating drug enforcement

Decatur Daily - 3/5/2017

March 05--MOULTON -- The illegal drug trade is changing, according to law enforcement officers, with mental health issues leading to repeat offenses and a shift from locally manufactured meth to synthetic meth made elsewhere.

Drug agents arrested more than 35 alleged drug distributors and users in Lawrence County in February, and agencies said investigations and more arrests are imminent.

For many, it was not the first drug-related arrest, Lawrence authorities said. They want to see that cycle broken.

"We saw quite a few repeat offenders in our latest roundup," Moulton police Chief Lyndon McWhorter said. "Evidently, putting them in jail doesn't always work. These offenders need help with their mental health."

He said he supports programs to get the offenders assistance.

"If they want help, they should be able to get help," McWhorter said. "We have seen forcing help on someone who doesn't want it doesn't work. ... Drug abuse is a form of mental illness. We need more avenues of help for people seeking it."

Defense attorneys working Lawrence drug cases agree.

"I believe dealing with a low-level drug user is more of a public-health issue than it is a legal issue," said longtime criminal defense attorney Michael Terry of Moulton. "They should be in some sort of long-term treatment and followup program."

Florence defense attorney Tim Case, who handles cases in Lawrence County, said prescription medicine abuse is at an "epidemic level."

"A lot of what I am seeing is people who are self-medicating for emotional and mental problems," Case said. "What we are needing is a more organized system of treating emotional problems, mental illness and substance abuse at the same time. If you treat one and don't treat the others, the problem is still there."

He said it's up to the Legislature to offer a workable solution.

"The hands of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are tied," Case said. "With limited resources, we are all required to do so much with so little."

Terry said the judicial system is stressed due to outdated drug laws.

"Marijuana is the beer of this generation," he said. "A substantial problem is meth and heroin have become so cheap. Problems are occurring when the user is hopped up on meth."

He said making some drug possession and distribution offenses misdemeanors, rather than felonies, would ease the backlog in the courts.

McWhorter said that during the February raids, ice (a form of synthetic methamphetamine) and prescription pills were the two most-confiscated controlled substances. Sheriff Gene Mitchell said his drug task force agents saw some marijuana laced with other chemicals in the roundups on Feb. 23-24.

"Every county has a drug problem," Mitchell said. "Whiskey used to be the problem. Heroin was the major problem in bigger cities but it died out and is now coming back in a cheaper version. Prescription pills are a constant problem here."

Lawrence authorities said hydrocodone, oxycodone, Xanax and Adderall are the main prescription drugs confiscated in raids.

Mitchell said that while many repeat offenders are simply users, their habits grow.

"The user starts stealing to support their habit, and that graduates into burglaries and robberies, and then something could go bad and all of sudden we have a murder," Mitchell said.

He said 50 to 60 percent of drug arrests he sees involve repeat offenders.

Mitchell said ice is on the rise because it is cheaper to buy than making meth.

Also reducing the number of meth labs not just in Lawrence County but in the state is a national database that restricts sales of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication used in the production of meth.

Alabama is one of 33 states that use the National Precursor Log Exchange to slow the illegal sale of pseudoephedrine.

State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, said the exchange has been effective in hampering efforts to manufacture meth locally, but that has created other problems.

"With the continued decline in meth lab seizures in our state in 2016 and the subsequent rise in meth from Mexico, it is clear that Alabama is seeing a changing threat with regard to the meth problem," Holtzclaw said in a statement last week . "As Alabama's tough anti-meth laws have made it harder for meth criminals to produce the drug, addicts are turning to dangerous drug cartels to get meth, importing a more addictive and cheaper version than what is produced locally."

Meanwhile, the battle against illegal drugs continues.

"We're investigating more cases as I speak," McWhorter said. "The drugs we're getting off the street are drugs not being sold to someone else."

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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(c)2017 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

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