Lt. Bruce Maddox hates the show "Breaking Bad." As the Narcotics Unit Supervisor at Walton County Sheriff's Office, he has good reason.
"It glorifies meth manufacturing," he said.
For Maddox, meth is not a source of entertainment, it's a dangerous threat to users, communities and first responders.
"I will stand in front of any sheriff in any jurisdiction and tell them they have a meth problem in their area. It's an epidemic," he said.
Meth isn't a new drug fad. In fact, Maddox has spent most of his 21 years as a police officer combating the growing problem.
"Crack's still a problem, prescription drugs are still there, marijuana is still there, cocaine is still there, but cases involving meth are the worst I've ever had to deal with in the narcotics unit," Maddox said. "Eight out of 10 calls we get from the public is related to meth and it's not just in North Walton, it's South Walton too."
'It takes a lot of man hours'
When it comes to getting meth out of Walton County, there are only eight officers in the WCSO Narcotics Unit, which means long, odd hours.
"You don't know when you're going to come to work or leave for the day," Maddox said. "You could get a call at 5 or 6 p.m. right when you're about to leave."
Maddox said he is blessed to have a small, but dedicated group of men and women.
"They're dedicated not only to the agency and task at hand, but to each other," he said.
Officers in the narcotics unit are trained to dismantle labs, regardless of the types of meth that is being cooked. The number of dismantled meth labs in Walton County began to spike from 2001-2004. Last year, the Walton County narcotics unit busted 30 meth labs and arrested 42 individuals. Eighteen labs have been dismantled so far this year with 28 arrests.
"It takes a lot of man hours," Maddox explained. "At least four officers are needed on the scene, just for safety precautions. And it may take four to five hours to dismantle the meth labs."
"The unit really puts in some very mind numbing hours trying to make a difference," added Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson. "There is a significant amount of risk faced not just from the criminals, but the toxic and explosive potential in the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine. Even with these circumstances the Walton County Vice unit is one of the most effective drug units in the state, that's not just me saying that, the numbers back it up."
Meth is not only a dangerous substance to consume, but if handled improperly, can cause fire and explosion hazards. Inside his WCSO office last week, Maddox shared several videos depicting how quickly the drug can cause a fire.
"Meth users discard these hazardous items anywhere — even playgrounds," he said.
Handling the meth users is also hazardous in other ways.
"You're dealing with someone who's been awake for days," explained Maddox. "They're not thinking straight. They're very paranoid, hallucinating, very volatile. Not to mention most of all drug dealers have weapons on them."
Even with evidence, breaking Walton County of its ties to meth manufacturing is not simple. With the Fourth Amendment, officers still need to obtain a warrant to search homes, which can give meth dealers and makers the necessary time to get away.
"The seizures only reflect the labs narcotics officers were able gain the information necessary to execute search warrants and make arrests; and doesn’t reflect the large number of labs we have intelligence on that has not reached the threshold of search warrant requirements," Maddox said.
There are several different methods of manufacturing meth, or methamphetamine. The two most common in Walton County is red phosphorus and the one-pot method. The red phosphorus method, which contains iodine and the red phosphorus from matches, is slightly easier to catch. The Drug Enforcement Administration already regulates iodine crystals as part of the Controlled Substance Act.
"When people are buying iodine by the gallon, that's a red flag," he said. "Two-ounces could last 10 years in a household. It's just a matter of education, but nobody knew what to look for."
Then the one-pot method came about, a simple way to cook meth in plastic soda or water bottles, often called the “shake and bake” method.
"The drug is very cheap to make and you can find the necessary items easily," he said.
In 2005, Congress took action against the growing number of meth labs by limiting the amount of the main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, that can be purchased. The ingredient is found in over-the-counter cold and sinus medicines. However, individuals found a way around it by enlisting someone else to purchase the meds.
"We call them smurfs — don't ask why," Maddox said. "The medicine is typically $10 or less, but the smurfs will buy it and sell it to the drug makers for $50-75. Now the problem has broadened and meth has become a worse problem than ever before. Soliciting people to buy pills turns it into a spider web — makes it more difficult to track."
Calling on the community
While it's gotten more difficult over the years to pinpoint meth manufacturing by tracking purchases, narcotics units benefit from citizen tips.
"You can call Crime Stoppers anonymously," he said. "We enter any info we receive and start a file and build from there."
An informed public is an effective defense against drug dealing, Maddox said.
"I think the community is blind to the problem," he said. "I don't think they understand how dangerous it is. It could be next door to you."
To better educate the public, WCSO offers Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Awareness, a free program to any civic organizations, church or group. The 90-minute presentation provides individuals the necessary information, from the ingredients needed to manufacture the drug, to the living conditions of the average dealer and user. For more information, call 892-8111.
"The only way we're ever going to get a leg up is through education," Maddox said. "The longer we wait, the longer it will take to see results."