Editor's note: This story has been updated from the print edition.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is cracking down on meth addiction, both through education and enforcement.
Sheriff A. J. Smith said he first became aware of the severity of the problem of methamphetamine production and use in the county when he was running for office. He said meth trafficking is the number one complaint received by the department.
According to drugrehab.com, a website providing information on trends in addiction and recovery, “Meth dependency in the Florida Panhandle is one of the largest and most persistent drug crises in the state.
“Rehabilitation professionals say that, after heroin, amphetamines are the second most common substance for which Floridians aged 18 - 35 seek addiction treatment,” reads the article.
“We receive complaints daily,” Smith said. “In some cases we see three generations of the same family all addicted to meth. Every community in the county has problems and pockets of abuse.”
He said he interviewed one meth user who claimed to have begun taking the drug from his mother’s stash when he was 11 years old.
According to state and federal law enforcement agencies, seizures of meth labs increased 77 percent from 2007 to 2012. More than 650 labs were busted in Florida in 2011 alone.
Smith said since he has taken office, the number of meth related arrests have increased. He plans to broaden county law enforcement’s approach to curbing the meth cycle.
“I think we’ve done a good job of working on the meth problem as far as arrests go. We don’t have as many driving around and on the street, but now we need a new approach to dealing with the problem. As we change our strategy the (meth dealers) change their habits as well. We have to talk about it. If we act like there’s no problem, there’s no way we can deal with it,” Smith said.
He said his department will add education and rehabilitation to incarceration as weapons against meth abuse. Officers will receive specialized training, and are investigating ways to mentor school-age children. The department hopes to have an expanded youth outreach program in place for the school year.
“We also want to have better rehab programs for folks who are already addicted and want help getting clean,” said Smith.
He praised an existing faith based rehabilitation program available to jail inmates, but said spirituality alone is sometimes not enough to break the hold of meth, especially when the user is released back into the community.
He said the sheriff’s office is introducing a tried and true program, dating back to the 1960s, that has been successful in South Carolina and other states, “Fresh Start.”
Smith said some participants in the Fresh Start program may have to leave the county and change their associates and environment for the cure to be complete.
“If they complete the course, we will help them find jobs and housing on their release,” he said. “We will also do our best to arrest offenders who don’t want help. We want them off the street.”
Meth is easy to produce, and users are known to make their own supply. Cooking meth is hazardous because it creates dangerous, toxic chemical fumes. Labs frequently explode or cause fires. Building where meth labs have been operated can suffer permanent structural damage or be condemned due to irreparable contamination.
Today, not all meth production is small scale or local. Foreign cartels, particularly from Mexico, have begun to take over the methamphetamine trade. Meth seizures along the United States border with Mexico went up 300 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to a UN report.
Smith believes law enforcement is seeing and increased influx of imported meth. “This is not just a sheriff’s department problem, it is a community problem. Everybody needs to get involved.”
The meth trade is a source of violent crime in Florida. According to the 2015 National Drug Threat Survey, 20.8 percent of respondents in Florida and the Caribbean reported methamphetamine contributed to violent crime.
Smith said that in Franklin County, it is often the root cause of theft, domestic violence and child abuse. He said that 90 percent of people in jail here are incarcerated for drug-related crimes.