CASPER -- Mike Burnett remembers the exact day he realized that Casper needed to do something different to curb meth use in the area.
“October 10, 2003,” Burnett, a former investigator for the state’s Department of Criminal Investigations, recalled without hesitation. “We found a drug lab across the street from Jefferson Elementary School.”
The school was emptied for the day, he said, while officials cleaned up the toxic, potentially explosive scene.
“That led to a discussion in the community. People thought we overreacted, that it was overkill,” Burnett said. “That’s when we realized the lack of knowledge the community had about the dangers and risks associated with meth.”
Burnett said a shift in attitudes toward the city’s “meth monster” followed, starting with a realization by law enforcement personnel.
“We realized that we couldn’t just arrest our way out of it,” he said.
A group was formed, starting with monthly meetings of 19 citizens and community leaders, said Burnett, now the director of United Way of Natrona County.
Following those meetings, funding was secured, and a formal Casper meth initiative was formed at the end of 2005. Burnett served as the director.
That group, it was decided, would initiate a new approach to the issue, starting with information and outreach to try to prevent meth use.
In 2005, 26 percent of Casper criminals listed meth as their drug of choice, according to data obtained from addiction surveys of local offenders.
Five years later, with programs like Weed and Seed in Casper and the Wyoming Meth Project, that number was down to 12 percent.
In terms of longer-term trends, Burnett, a longtime law enforcement veteran in the area, said he believed meth use in Natrona County peaked from 2000 to about 2004, a period that included several meth related homicides.
The drug entered the area in the early 1990s, and usage steadily increased until about 2006, Burnett said.
Meth-specific data from that period is scarce, and it was not until 2006 that the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police began including meth arrests – rather than the broader “drug-related” arrests – in detailed reports on crime across the state.
The number of local meth arrests from 2006, 53, is also problematic, however, because the report is based on only 63 percent of the total arrests in the county from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2006.
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In more recent years, the data is more complete. From 2010 through 2012, the figured hovered between 2.2 to 2.5 percent of all statewide arrests. In 2013, that number jumped to 3.44 percent.
In Natrona County, meth was listed as a factor in roughly 4.5 percent of all arrests last year. In 2012, that number was 3.5 percent.
Natrona County Sheriff Gus Holbrook attributed the uptick in methamphetamine arrests last year to the recent economic boom in Casper.
Jean Davies, executive director of the Wyoming Meth Project, which is based in Casper, said she believes that most meth labs have disappeared from the area and that the meth in Casper is now the work of Mexican cartels.
Davies combats that influx by producing graphic commercials and advertising campaigns designed to show the ill effects of the crystalline drug.
Those ads are only part of her campaign. She also organizes events and presentations at local schools aimed at stopping use before it starts.
“It’s not an attractive drug,” Davies said.
Burnett said that although addiction to any drug can lead to more criminal behavior – like selling it to pay for the next high – meth is particularly worrisome to law enforcement because of some of the effects the drug has on its users.
“Meth brings on a whole new level of psychosis,” he said. “You get people with a propensity to commit violence (losing) their logical processing, not to mention significant paranoia. It’s very, very troubling.”
Casper has had no shortage of meth-related violent crime in recent months. This past week, for example, Larry Burgess admitted to using brass knuckles to beat a man he believed had been housing a snitch on a past meth operation. Burgess is believed to have been under the influence of meth at the time of the attack.
Davies said she is not discouraged by the slightly higher meth numbers in 2013, and she will keep marching on with her message to Casper’s young people.
“We just have to keep the message out there,” Davies said. “There’s always new kids growing up.”