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Meth Is Still A Large, Growing Problem In Louisville

Creative Commons

More people in Louisville are being charged for possessing methamphetamines than for heroin and opiates combined, according to police data obtained by WFPL News.

The data show surges in charges for meth possession and trafficking in the past five years, as public awareness has shifted from meth to concerns over heroin and opioids.

Meth use exploded in the early 1990s, spreading through home-grown labs in cities. With federal and state initiatives, the problem faded from the public eye. Meth labs in Louisville, reflected through police charges for manufacturing the drug, dwindled from more than 100 in 2010 to just five this year.

But as Louisville Metro Police data seemed to show a slowing of the spread of meth labs, charges for possessing and trafficking meth, heroin and opiates — which includes prescription drug abuse — grew.

According to LMPD data, only six people were charged for trafficking meth in 2007. That same year, 60 people were charged for possession of the drug.

But a decade later, the picture is different. So far in 2017, nearly 1,000 people have been charged with meth possession and 401 have been charged with trafficking. This year, methamphetamine charges for both trafficking and possession have surpassed those for heroin and opiates combined.

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Louisville Drug Possession Charges 2007-2017 Infogram

Heather Gibson has seen the effects of meth's resurgence. Gibson is the director of program services for the Healing Place, a detox and recovery center in Louisville. She said more people who use meth are coming to the center, and many are using a more potent drug funneled from labs in Mexico.

She said most addicts use multiple drugs, but for many, meth is more attractive.

“Meth lasts longer," Gibson said. "Heroin, you have to use several times a day or you physically get ill. Methamphetamine is going to give you more bang for your buck — it’s going to last a lot longer.”

A gram of meth costs around $80, compared with the price of a gram of heroin, which can cost more than twice that.

The uptick in meth use in Louisville can also be seen in criminal charges data. Comparing LMPD's 2012 data to current numbers, charges for meth possession and trafficking grew at nearly seven times the rate of heroin charges. And while marijuana far outnumbered meth and heroin, charges for marijuana have steadily decreased during the same period.

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Louisville Drug Trafficking Charges 2007-2017 Infogram

Still, heroin and opiates remain a deadlier problem.

Bonnie Richard studies opiates at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a California-based non-profit researching prevention, treatment and policy. Richard said heroin and opiate abuse grew thanks to doctors over-prescribing patients, leaving many people dependent on the drugs.

When prescription drugs are cut off or become too expensive, many turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative. That’s why, Richard said, the opioid crisis is different: Anyone can be affected.

“[Heroin’s] overtaken the concern that there was, not too many years ago, with meth,” Richard said. "If you don’t carefully taper down, if you just stop taking [opiates] too quickly, your body gets really mad at you and you go through withdrawal … they’re really a perfect storm of addiction. It’s a very complicated problem we don’t understand enough about.”


President Donald Trump earlier this year declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. But as the Ohio Valley ReSource reported, the administration’s emergency plan includes few specifics or funding options to meet current challenges.

The Ohio Valley — including Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia — collectively has a rate of opioid-related deaths that's more than twice the national average.

Per the ReSource, last year, 5,306 people died from opioid overdoses in the three states — 15 deaths a day. That means 13 percent of all opioid deaths in the country occurred in a region with just over 5 percent of the nation's population.

Among the dead are William Butler's clients. He’s a longtime criminal defense lawyer. Butler’s seen drugs’ popularity change over the course of his career, but he said the opioid epidemic is different.

Today, he said, drug traffickers are often users, selling product to support their habit. And for Butler, it’s hard to tell if the system of drug courts and rehabilitation centers make a big impact.

“I don’t know if it’s made a dent because the epidemic is expanding,” Butler said. “We’ve seen President Trump say it’s an emergency, yet he hasn’t allocated more money to combat the problem … there’s not enough resources.”

Butler believes the drug courts are overcrowded and said there should be more resources like the Healing Place. That, he said, would help combat the problem.

Gibson, from the Healing Place, agrees. The medical community, she said, doesn’t think it’s medically necessary for meth users to detox from the drug. That leaves the Healing Place as one of the few centers welcoming meth users to detox. But it’s hard, and resources are scarce.

“We’re seeing a lot more of our clients who are in states of psychosis from the meth use, so it’s a more difficult to manage detoxing population,” Gibson said.

“We’re literally one of the only place for folks to come to to get some separation and let the methamphetamine get out of their body to actually have a proper detox from that ... we only have so many beds here, and so if we’re full — we can’t take everybody.”

Gibson imagines those who the center can’t take end up back on the streets, are locked up, or fall back into the cycle of addiction.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.

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