WEST CHESTER — Methamphetamine trafficking and use is making a return of sorts across the country, and law enforcement sources at a press conference by District Attorney Tom Hogan say the situation in Chester County area is no different.
“Crystal meth is coming storming back in the region,” Hogan told reporters, noting its “potent and pure” quality and cheap cost for dealers as it makes its way from the southern border to the Northeast U.S. “Crystal has flooded southeaster Pennsylvania. The market is being flooded by the Mexican cartels with this product.”
“We are sounding the alarm bells now,” the D.A. said, flanked by two southern Chester County police chiefs and a representative of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as the head of the District Attorney’s Drug Unit. “We need the public to get ready for it.”
Hogan said his drug investigators had begun to notice an uptick in the trafficking of methamphetamine for the past year or so, but also that they had noticed that the quality and potency of the drug was high and the price relatively low.
He said cartels across the southern border were able to produce a strain of the drug that is purer than the “biker meth” of the past, and that those organizations were pushing its sale in the United States as a counter to heroin and opioids, the use of which have been flatlining recently.
“They are pushing it at a very, very low price,” hoping to create a market by creating addicts among drug users, Hogan told reporters at the conference. “It’s like Big Pharma.”
Where in the early 2000s a kilogram of the drug would cost between $46,000 and $48,000, today it can be purchased in pure form for $10,000, he said.
Hogan’s comments, echoed by Laura Hendrick of the DEA, mirror what was discussed at a recent hearing in Harrisburg about the rise in methamphetamine trafficking across the state.
Jennifer Smith, secretary for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, told a state Senate committee in March that the state is seeing “quite an uptick” in both cocaine and methamphetamine use in three early warning areas — the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Johnstown areas.
“We kind of knew it was coming, we just didn’t know how quickly that trend was going to start shifting across the state,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Law enforcement seizures, police tracking of sales and reports from people needing medical treatment also point to growing use of cocaine and meth in Pennsylvania, Smith said. In October, the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh reported the largest seizure of methamphetamine in the history of western Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported in October a concern that methamphetamine and cocaine use are being seen at much higher levels in areas that haven’t historically been hotspots for those drugs.
“Cocaine and methamphetamine are definitely on the rise,” U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Rusty Payne told the AP.
Currently seeking his this term as the county's top prosecutor, Hogan, at the press conference held in the Chester County Justice Center, referenced what he called a “medium-sized case” that pointed to the burgeoning presence of methamphetamine in the county.
In February and March, a confidential informant working with the Chester County Drug Strike Force made purchases of both cocaine and, in increasing amounts, methamphetamine from a Reading man, identified as Ruben Vargas Santillan.
Hogan said Santillan, a Mexican national in the country without documentation, would travel from his home in Reading to southern Chester County to make the drug transactions. The four buys all took place in New Garden.
On March 25, Vargas Santillan was stopped by police, including Chester County Detective Oscar Rosado while driving his car. Inside, police found 11 bags of methamphetamine, each weighing an ounce. When authorities searched his home in Reading, they found a variety of drug paraphernalia, as well as 7 ounces of meth, 8 pounds of marijuana, and some cocaine.
Vargas Santillan, 35, is currently being held in Chester County Prison awaiting a preliminary hearing before Magisterial District Judge Nancy Gill of Parkesburg, said Assistant District Attorney Michelle Barone, the drug unit chief.
Hogan and Police Chiefs Sam Iacono of Oxford and Gerald Simpson of the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department said that the use of crystal meth by drug addicts is of high concern to police because they tend to act violently while using the drug.
He pointed to two murders that occurred in the county that allegedly involved the use of meth, one involving the shooting death of a West Caln man in November and another involving the strangulation death of an East Nottingham woman in January.
It is the safety of his officers and the public that “keeps me awake at night,” said Simpson. “We are seeing this violence in our communities.”
“Every time we turn a corner, we find something else,” said Iacono, noting the difference between heroin use and meth use. “It’s a nasty drug.”
Although not as immediately or inherently dangerous to use as heroin, there have been a number of overdose deaths in the county and region involving crystal meth.
According to James Garrow, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, drug deaths in which toxicology reports showed methamphetamine rose between 2015 and 2017, but remained stable in 2018.
“The number is still small,” said Garrow. “Only about six percent of drug deaths in Philadelphia last year were positive for methamphetamine — and most of these were also positive for one or more opioids.”
In the Chester County, Coroner Christina VandePol told MediaNews Group that the numbers of accidental drug overdose deaths in which methamphetamine was present rose from seven in 2016 to 12 in 2018, a small portion of the overall fatal ODs her office investigated.
“In almost all cases, methamphetamine and cocaine were found in combination with other drugs,” said VandePol. “I’m aware of the reported increase in methamphetamine and cocaine elsewhere in Pennsylvania so we are keeping a close eye on this. Fentanyl, however, was found in more than 80 percent of accidental drug overdoses in both 2017 and 2018 and continues to be the major illicit drug associated with overdose deaths in Chester County.”
Attorney Deborah Ryan, the Democrat who is seeking nomination as candidate for district attorney, said in a statement late Wednesday that the re-emergence of methamphetamine use should no detract from the county's attention to the opioid crisis.
"This news is alarming, and at the same time, we cannot consider the opioid crisis over," Ryan said. "We need to continue the important work that Chester County Drug and Alcohol Services has done. The data that has come in for 2018 says that overdose deaths in Chester County are down 23 percent compared with 2017, so that means we are making progress.
"We must make the distinction between people who traffic drugs and therefore must be prosecuted, and addicts who need treatment, not just punishment," she said. "And it is essential to work collaboratively with law enforcement, our Chester County coroner Christina VandePol, the Chester County Drug and Alcohol Services and the PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs for the education, prevention and protection of our community. We need to trust those on the frontlines and act on research."
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.