Germany Drug Bust

Crystal meth has become a big problem in Indiana.

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – A community drug crisis throws daunting challenges at journalists. In places like Mexico, more than 100 have been murdered as they confronted the cartels, which are now targeting mayors.

Three times in my career as a political journalist in Indiana I’ve had to size up such a threat, though not as dangerous as in Mexico. The first came in Fort Wayne where I arrived at the Journal Gazette in 1990, where the crack crisis evolved. The way to get close to that story was to align with well-armed landlords or tag along with Child Protective Service workers.

But it was reactionary journalism with little impact.

Writing for the Indianapolis alternative newspaper NUVO in the late 1990s, the crack scene had arrived well after it had scarred Fort Wayne. The frustrations on that beat were the authorities in Indiana’s two biggest cities didn’t apply the lessons of Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne to The Meadows in Indy.

But the Indy experience yielded a lesson applicable today. It came in the form of Republican prosecutor Scott Newman, who approached journalists at NUVO with a plea for help.

One of Newman’s goals was to pressure the Southern Indiana district attorney to prosecute gang bangers on federal weapons charges. A federal rap could send a banger to the clink for 58 months.

We picked up Newman’s challenge, but the district attorney claimed she was too busy to prosecute gun crimes in Indiana’s terrorized state capital.

Newman, however, was a true leader who attempted to leverage all assets at his disposal.

Which gets me to this third drug wave, which is currently a double-header. Heroin has been a recent arrival. Methamphetamine has been a scourge for more than a decade. Indiana had led the nation in domestic meth production three years running, which has captured my attention.

Are there solutions beyond the cat-and-mouse narc?

We’ve heard the busted clandestine lab figures in the 1,300 to 1,500 range during the past year with more than a 1,000 kids exposed. It has prompted mayors and prosecutors to reach out. The solution appeared to be rescheduling PSE products like Sudafed. But law-abiding residents would have to get a prescription.

Listening to testimony in the House Public Health Committee last week, prosecutors Jeff Arnold from Delaware County and Mike Steiner from Martin County provided troubling stats.

Of the 1,533 known labs busted in 2015, Steiner observed that without the smelly anhydrous ammonia as part of the process, “We have to get stupid lucky to find our labs."

Gov. Mike Pence bragged about the 1,500 meth lab busts when he addressed newly elected local officials last week. But busting labs is reactive. Depriving them of the material to make meth is the challenge. It requires leadership.

Three Republican legislators — Reps. Wendy McNamara, of Mount Vernon, Dave Frizzell, of Indianapolis, and Ben Smaltz, of Auburn, are trying. Smaltz came to the conclusion that Arnold and Steiner did: Rescheduling PSE is the best route.

But the political barriers are high. In places like Indy, where meth isn’t a problem, folks want easy access to Sudafed. They don’t care about the 700 meth labs that have been busted in other counties.

Smaltz may have found a solution, allowing “patients of record” who routinely visit the local CVS or Walgreen’s to have unfettered access. The strangers would only get small amounts.

At the beginning of the week, Public Health Chairman Cindy Kirchhofer, of Beech Grove, appeared almost disinterested. Meth is not a problem in her district. By Wednesday, when Smaltz’s bill passed the committee by an 11-1 vote, Kirchhofer had come around.

“I am voting for the state of Indiana,” Kirchhofer said.

This is a display of leadership sorely needed in Indiana.

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Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.