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Experts warn of new production methods as meth arrests rise in Alaska

KTUU 2, Nov 6, 2015

Alaska's heroin epidemic generates headlines but methamphetamine addiction plagues the state, with rising numbers of arrests and new methods of production making it harder for law enforcement to crack down on illegal operations, detectives and drug experts say.

At a time of growing arrests and new so-called "Shake and Bake" or "One Pot" manufacturing methods, state, federal, and tribal officials are paying attention. The federal Indian Health Service, for example, awarded $1.6 million to Alaska tribes and tribal health providers in September to combat both meth use and suicide, problems that experts say are linked when considering the nationalAmerican Indian and Alaska Native population.

Meth, a central nervous system stimulant, is a huge problem among Native communities nationwide, experts say. Up to a third of tribal citizens in the United States, the majority of them in the Lower 48, have reported using meth, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Roughly 5 million people identify as American Indian or Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“If this drug becomes a part of your life, it’s like a monster that will tear you apart,” said Detective Jeffrey Kershaw, with Washington State Patrol, who spoke at a recent conference in Anchorage organized by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Kershaw has participated in more than 500 meth lab raids and has given multiple trainings in Alaska on how to identity places where people are making the drug.

"All it takes is one flight for it to get into a community. It invades these remote communities like wildfire," he said.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of illicit drug use of any other racial or ethnic group in the country, according to Trends in Indian Health 2014, a report by the Indian Health Service. They also had a suicide rate 60 percent higher than all races in the U.S. during the three-year reporting period, 2007 to 2009, according to the report.

Hoping to curb the dual problem, Congress began steering millions of dollars to tribal and urban Indian organizations in 2007 to combat methamphetamine and suicide. The recently awarded grants to Alaska organizations are part of that continuing effort.

Among the top recipients: Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., based in Bethel, and Anchorage-based Southcentral Foundation which received $275,000 each. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium got $200,000, with a variety of other tribal health providers, tribes, and organizations across the state receiving smaller amounts, according to IHS. The funding will help boost access to health care services and build the capacity of Alaska Native communities to provide prevention, intervention, and treatment services to Alaska Natives who are at risk of suicide or meth use, said IHS spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

Meth use and its related social problems, including family disintegration, were spotlighted at two recent workshops in Anchorage aimed at training tribal housing and environmental workers to identify the warning signs of meth. The goal was to prevent injury among workers who enter homes where meth is manufactured or used, and to help increase reporting of suspected meth use to authorities. Explosions, fires, and toxic fumes often go hand in hand with meth production.

“How many people in this room knows someone who uses meth?” asked Kami Snowden, executive director of Tribal Solid Waste Advisory Network. She addressed a room of about 40 participants at the start of the ANTHC workshop. About half the people in room raised their hands.

“After I give the training and I ask the same question. Usually about 80 percent of the room raises hands,” said Snowden, who has spent the last eight years working with tribes in Alaska and the Lower 48 to address meth problems.

Meth remains a top drug of choice in Alaska, according to detectives and other experts, including Snowden. But rather than operating large meth labs as they did before the Legislature restricted access to pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth, Alaska drug dealers tend to import the drug from the Lower 48. They’re also using a process alternately called “Shake and Bake” or “One Pot," where small batches of meth are cooked in plastic soda bottles.

As with meth labs, the one-pot method exposes cooks and others nearby to explosions, fire, and dangerous chemicals, authorities say.

“Body carries” are a common way people bring the drug into Alaska, detectives said. That’s where a person inserts the drug, bundled in plastic bags or other containers, into a body cavity to avoid detection.

“I can guarantee you that practically every flight heading to Western Alaska has drugs on it, whether it’s marijuana, heroin, or meth,” said Sgt. Kevin Blanchette, with the Alaska State Trooper’s Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit. Blanchette supervises the western region of the state.

Last year, the number of meth-related arrests in Alaska rose to 232, up from 187 in 2013 and 182 the prior year, according to the troopers’2014 annual drug report. The street value of meth seized in Alaska last year totaled $4.2 million, the report indicates.

Meth lab seizures dropped to zero last year likely due to out-of-state imports and because more addicts are using the "One Pot" method, according to Captain Jeff Laughlin, head of the trooper’s drug unit.

Heroin addicts sometimes use meth to counteract withdrawal effects after their high ends. After consuming meth, addicts will often then take prescription anti-anxiety medication to calm themselves from the jitters and increased heart rate typically caused by meth.

“These users are not sticking to one drug anymore. It’s not like it used to be,” said Laughlin.

Beside heroin and meth, another growing drug problem in rural Alaska is the combination of prescription opioids like oxycontin and the consumption of home-brew, an illegally made alcohol product sometimes present in villages that liquor and spirits.

Many recent overdose deaths in rural Alaska have resulted from that dangerous cocktail, Blanchette said.

Alcohol, heroin, and prescription opioid abuse are more prevalent in Bethel and surrounding villages than meth, said Ida Charlie, who coordinates meth and suicide prevention for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. But since suicide is a very serious issue and it goes hand and hand with substance abuse of all kinds, the $275,000 grant her organization received will be used for promoting wellness programs rooted in Yupik culture, said Charlie.

"A majority of our suicides, not all but a majority, are when people are under the influence," said Mark Anaruk, program evaluator for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.