Red Ribbon Week: An interview with a retired drug cop

October 24, 2010 

When Columbus police Sgt. Rick Stinson started working drugs in 1985, methamphetamine was not a problem.

Today, it is law enforcement’s biggest challenge. Meth is produced in rural labs using instructions found on the Internet and by Mexican drug cartels to be shipped to the United States and sold on the streets.

Now 58, Stinson spent more than two decades working to take illegal drugs off the streets in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley before serving as special agent in charge of the Metro Narcotics Drug Task Force, which worked drug cases in West Georgia and east Alabama.

Less than a month after retiring from the force, Stinson talked with the Ledger-Enquirer about the growth of meth, how it has replaced other drugs the Chattahoochee Valley, and lessons learned from his more than 33 years in law enforcement.

You have as much experience working drugs as anybody on the streets of Columbus, right?

I have been doing it as long as anybody.

When was the first time you saw meth as a drug cop?

Back in the ’80s, you would occasionally see meth. It wasn’t widely available, especially on the street level. Back then, meth was a little different. The manufacture of it was a little more crude or at least the finished product was.

It used to be known as the biker drug. The folks you saw abusing it the most would be bikers, truck drivers, occasionally students. It was not known that much as a recreational drug like cocaine and that type stuff. It was being used to stay awake.

It was intermixed with amphetamine. If they could get amphetamine, that was fine. If not, they would use methamphetamine.

This was a homemade product?

The methamphetamine was. You usually heard about it being made on college campuses. It took a little more refining of what you used. It took more of a lab setting.

When did you start to see changes in the way meth was manufactured and used?

Almost like every trend drug, we get a heads-up because we see it being used out West. Seems like everything migrates this way. Probably about 10 years ago you started hearing a whole lot about the meth lab and the epidemic that was coming. About seven or eight years ago we started getting calls that a meth lab was being done.

Were those rural or urban calls?

It was a little mixture but it was mostly in the rural areas. It was in the outlying counties — isolated areas. Didn’t have a lot, but there were occasionally some in the middle of neighborhoods.

Do you remember the first meth lab you busted?

There have been so many. One that sticks out is up in Benning Hills in 2001 or 2002.

What did you think when you walked into that house?

We were aware of the possible dangers and we took all of the precautions. We didn’t have the experience. Honestly, my first thought was like the first time I saw crack. It was: “It’s here.” And I knew it was going to get bad.

How do you compare it to crack?

Crack — it came in, it made a bigger splash. I still remember the first time we found crack, we busted some guys out of Florida, supposedly from Miami — they were the Miami boys. And we popped them in Baker Village and got a pretty good amount of crack. From that day on, you couldn’t find powdered cocaine. That’s all we had been busting, powered cocaine here and there. Hit that first bust, everything got turned upside down.

What got turned upside down when you first saw meth?

It takes over a different segment. Meth has never been known as a street drug. Now, you are starting to see that.

There all sorts of problems with meth. Working drugs, the whole point is, go out and start with the street-level dealer. You pop them and try to find where they are getting their dope. Then, if you are lucky, you get one of those and he turns a bigger guy. And you get all the way up to the major distributors.

Your meth people, you get the street level and the big guy all at the same time. There is no chain. His suppliers are the super stores. You can walk into any of the big stores — Kmart, Walmart, any of them — and buy everything you need to make a meth lab.

Still?

Sure. Everything that is in meth is legal. There is nothing illegal about any of the components that make up meth. So, you can pretty much buy everything you need at any big store. I am not blaming those stores. Everything is something you might need to do something legal.

Stop a head cold?

Right. We have regulated the amount of ephedrine you can buy — we have made that a lot more difficult. We have made criminal statues on anhydrous. You can’t restrict how much camping fuel a store sells, or how many batteries they sell. Those things are legal — I use them and you use them.

What is frustrating is, I can take you to some stores and it almost appears the way they stock things it is convenient for a meth lab. You find matches, Coleman fuel and iodine all on the same aisle.

Name one of those stores.

I am not going to name those. They are not chains.

When you bust a meth lab, can you tell immediately if the person is a user?

Most of the time. When you find a small lab, you usually find someone who is a user. But at the same time, he is probably making enough so he is distributing some so he can go back and replenish his supply. The big problem now for most meth lab cooks is the ephedrine. Now, you have to show a driver’s license to buy a cold tablet.

Is that a good thing?

It is the only way that you can keep track of this. The pharmacies are now keeping databases that are accessible for law enforcement. We can go in there and see who’s buying the ephedrine. You go to the Walmart and buy two boxes, then you go to the Kmart and buy two boxes and you go to a pharmacy and buy two boxes. You have to leave an ID every time so they can slowly gather enough evidence.

Is most of what we see in Columbus — and I would say Russell County and Harris County by extension — homemade or is it coming from a Mexican drug cartel?

I would still say the majority of the meth is coming from clandestine labs. But when you are looking at it from what you are seizing — if that is your gauge — it just depends on where the information is coming at the time.

That’s how you work dope. If I have information that this guy over here is selling a lot of ice — which is not made in a clandestine lab and is backed by the cartels — then it looks like we get a lot of imported meth. Most of the statistics I read say the majority is from the bathtub labs.

Have you actually seen one in a bathtub?

Sure.

What is the difference in the potency of the drug from the early 1980s until now?

It all depends on how good the cook is. When you are talking about cooking meth, you are talking about chemically cooking meth. If your man knows what he is doing, he can get some good percentages. The old meth, under ideal conditions, was about 70 percent pure. I have heard of some of the meth coming out in the ’90s.

What does 90 percent pure meth do to you?

More potent, like cocaine. It can cause a user a lot more trouble — especially health wise.

Early on, meth was labeled as a white person’s drug. Has that changed over the years?

Yes. For the longest, you never saw it on the street. Now, you are starting to see it there. It is crossing all of your barriers — race, sex, people who are affluent and people who are poor.

Did crack do that?

A little, but not as much as meth.

So this is becoming a more socially accepted drug, like marijuana?

I don’t know if it is socially accepted. I don’t think it has reached that. But its use is growing. If it continues, it probably will be. The only problem with a hard-core meth user is, he is going to crash and burn. He cannot continue to use meth for years and years without it becoming a functional problem — where marijuana is not necessarily that way.

Is meth in our high schools?

Unfortunately, all of our drugs are in our high schools. I don’t know it is the predominant drug in the high schools. Marijuana and prescription pills are probably the most abused in high schools.

When meth first showed up, it wasn’t in the high schools much, right?

It was rare. You can only go by what you are seizing and there have not been a lot of cases made in the high schools. If you’ll look at it from use throughout, there is no doubt that it is being used by high school students.

What is the worst thing meth-related you have seen as a drug cop?

I have seen deaths from it. What it does to a person — I have met people who were so addicted to meth, that is all they care about. They would give up their kids.

Is there any one case that stands out?

Dozens that meet that criteria. Way too often, you go in and you do a meth lab and it is being cooked in the house and there are children around.

Is that still troubling to you?

Yeah. The fumes alone are so hazardous. Some of the chemicals when they are improperly mixed are deadly. For every pound of meth, there are 5 or 10 pounds of toxic waste.

What did you know about meth on the day you retired that you wish you had known 15 years earlier?

I don’t know if knowing a whole lot more about it would help solve the problem.

That is a scary statement.

What I mean is, there is no prevention unless you want to set up at every store and follow people out who buy ephedrine. There is no quick fix for it. I am trying to think what one thing I would have changed. And I don’t know if there is one single thing.

Are you glad to be out of it?

Yes.

Is meth part of the reason you are glad to be out of it?

No. I think 20 years working drugs is enough. I loved it as much the day I left as any other time. Everybody needs to know when it is time to leave.

How old are you?

I am 58. I stayed in it three years longer than I had to.

If somebody made you the drug czar, how would you solve the meth problem?

I don’t know if you can solve the meth problem by enforcement. Obviously, working it as long as I have, I don’t think we put enough resources working drugs. I am sure if you talked to a homicide detective or supervisor, he will tell you the same thing. I think drugs cause 90 percent of our crime problems. Less than 1 percent of law enforcement work drug cases.

Does meth produce more crime problems than other drugs?

No, it causes as much. When a person becomes addicted to any drug, it eventually brings them down to a point where they can’t hold a legitimate job — their only avenue is to go get it any way. That means they will do it illegally.

Where would you rank meth as a problem when you came into law enforcement and where is it today as you leave?

The standard I would have to use is how many cases we are making. And at that point, meth was probably at the bottom. You just didn’t make a lot of meth cases. Now, if it is not the top problem, it is a close second. The most widespread use of drugs is marijuana, but it does not cause the problems. Meth and the misuse of prescription drugs are neck and neck. Cocaine is close behind.

When you started working drugs, if someone had told you in 2010 when you retired that meth would be at the top of the list, what would you have told them?

One of the things I have learned with drug use is the trend changes. When I first started working, we chased heroine. That was the drug we tried to get out. Occasionally, you would see cocaine. Things will swap over. I don’t look at cocaine and crack the same.

Can you tell if someone you pass in the aisle at the grocery store is on meth?

Maybe in the latter stages. But one of the things you see with somebody who has been on meth for a long time is they are always in a hurry. It is like their motions are going faster than their brain. And if they were coming in here to get this coffee cup from me, they might come in and out two or three times before their mind finally catches up and they remember what they came in for. They will do a pattern of things to get one thing accomplished.

Do you look at meth and ice the same?

No. The big difference is when you are getting ice you are in a situation where you can start to climb the drug ladder. There are suppliers. There are levels. Now what you’re starting to see is making stores like a pill abuse makes doctors.

Did you try to find the guys who were training the cooks?

Give me a laptop and I can tell you how to make it. It is rare when you go into a meth lab that you don’t see the printed materials out in front of you.

Anything else you want to say?

The one thing that has always amazed me — if anybody ever saw what was in meth — that people would shoot it up your arm. Let’s pour some fuels in a bucket of Coleman fuel, let’s get some lithium strips and mix it with starter fluid, then when we get through we will ... shoot it in our arm. That part amazes me that people would even have that thought process.

Even after 33 years, that amazes you?

Yeah.

You never became jaded to that?

No.

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