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Addicted America: Meth's resurgence in Michiana


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- America is addicted. The opioid crisis that crushed the country, also plagued our own neighborhoods. But now, another drug is making an appearance.

Meth. 

The staggering statistics are shocking many people in Michiana. The number of arrests for meth are overshadowing the people arrested for opioid-related charges.

That growing number of arrests are just part of the problem. 

"He sees us coming. Get your seat belt on," instructs Indiana State Special Trooper Brian Hoffman. He took ABC57 News on a ride-along as he patrolled the highway, using traffic stops to try and seize any illegal drugs.

"This is one of the main East-West corridors for drug trafficking across the country, in the northern part of the country," he explains. "It's very simple to get to Chicago and Cleveland. And it runs right through South Bend and Elkhart."

The Indiana Toll Road is a popular route for drug mules.

In Michiana, state police say it's being used to transport heroin, marijuana, and now meth. 

"It's like looking for a needle in the haystack. There are thousands of vehicles traveling across this road every day. Only a very small percentage may have a load of drugs in them," says Trooper Hoffman. 

One vehicle that was stopped, raised his suspicions. 

"It has a lot of red flags of a potential drug courier. Their story doesn't match up and it's not very good," he adds. 

Every traffic stop can make the difference on how much meth makes its way to Michiana. 

"What's this here for?" points Trooper Hoffman to the black air freshener hanging inside the trunk of one car. "Yeah, I figured it's for the smell. Usually, it's for the smell if there's narcotics here."

Trooper Hoffman explains that air freshener can be a good indicator of something going on.

"Did you notice the air freshener in the trunk? Do you have an air freshener in your trunk?" he asks. 

But state troopers are only one line of defense against the destruction of drugs. 

Meth has become an intoxicating import. 

"We seize illegal narcotics quite frequently. The narcotics are originating mostly from Mexico and we are seeing increases of methamphetamines and opioids that are coming across the South-West border," says Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Joyce Golosino.

ABC57 News Facetimed her about the El Centro checkpoint in California.

"They seized over 1,560 pounds of methamphetamines," she adds.

And that's just in one year, so far.

It's the highest number of any border checkpoint.

"The smuggling organizations have a lot of money and power, so they utilize their resources in Mexico and the United States to avoid detection and to make their illegals make their final destination," Agent Golosino adds. 

One of those final destinations is Michiana.

Despite hard work, dealers are getting meth past detection, making its way 2,061 miles to the South Bend area.

ABC57 News is told the imports are more potent than the homemade drugs. 

"She said, it's so much harder to get off of this meth, than it was to get off of the meth that we were all making back then," says Dawn Brauneker. 

Her friend is one of the many who are no longer sober or safe.

But Brauneker is one of the ones who successfully fought her addiction. 

"That very first hit is all it took. I fell in love. It was like it was the wonder drug and exactly what I had been looking for," she recalls.

The love of the high. It was her way to escape a reality that she says was more of a nightmare.

For the Argos mom of four, life was a lot different not too long ago.

"Right around Christmas 2010, I got arrested for the first time for a meth charge," she says. "After I got bailed out, by the time I got from Plymouth to Argos, there was someone waiting there with dope for me. I got high again and I was just off and running."

Her addiction seemed to have no end in sight. Until Brauneker was confronted with a blast of reality. 

Someone was making a one-pot meth lab just inches away from her.

"I saw he had a bottle and there was a fireball in it. He threw the bottle at me. As soon as it touched my fingertips, it exploded. It covered me in flames," she explains.

The explosion knocked out eight windows and cracked the ceiling.  Half of her body was covered in burns. 

"I looked down and saw my skin peeling back and hanging off of my fingers," Brauneker recalls.

Now, nearly eight years later, that day is burned forever in her brain, and etched on her skin.

"I have the physical reminders. I look in the mirror every day and I see my burns," she says. "I know what I did to get myself in that position."

But what about others, now?

"One of the downsides, I think, of people getting off of opiates, is that it's a possibility they will alternate that substance out. So, I'll see people switch from heroin to methamphetamine," says Brooke Marshall.

It's a switch that's just as sinister. 

Marshall is an addiction therapist at Oaklawn and a therapist with the St. Joseph County jail program.

She sees it all.

"The methamphetamine offsets the heroin. It keeps you awake. And the heroin will offset the methamphetamine," she explains. "It also has become cheaper to get. So maybe it would have been $100 previously, now it's $20.

Cheaper, with an equal set of conniving claws. 

All of this, posing an even bigger problem that just fuels fixation. 

"Do you see an end to this addiction cycle?" ABC57 asks Marshall.

"I would like to say yes," she says. "I would like to see the overdoses decrease. I would like to see more long-term options for people who need the help."

Help is certainly needed.

Several counties across Michiana are seeing drastic increases in arrests. 

In Elkhart County, 2018 saw 23 opioid related arrests, but 98 for meth-related.

The intense increases also seen in Starke, LaGrange, Kosciusko, and Marshall County.

The latter, saw 222 meth related arrests, versus just 41 opioid related, this year alone.

Brauneker now works with the Marshall County Community Correction program and is not surprised by those staggering statistics.

"A lot of our drug cases are meth related. I would say 80, if not 90% of the jail is all drug related in some way," she explains.

It's everywhere. First responders and law enforcement are at a loss. 

"It's availability is just...I've never seen it in 37 years of law enforcement experience," says Marshall County Sheriff Matthew Hassel. "I've never seen the market get flooded this much with one particular drug."

A deadly drug with long term effects.

While it's less likely to cause an overdose, it's just as dangerous.

"It's an upper. It causes high blood pressure, higher heart rate, so an overdose would be more related to like stroke or heart attack symptoms," Marshall says. "You see scaring from the sores, you see meth mouth, memory loss is absolutely a long term problem. [And] they have symptoms very similar to schizophrenia. They can have hallucinations and delusions."

The drug is still getting past detection.

Border patrol agents, working to stop the trafficking, have their work truly cut out for them.

"Smuggling organizations use very new and creative ways to get these drugs into the United States. They use tunnels, drones, and maritime," lists Golosino. 

So what  can be done?

It's going to have to be a community effort.

Experts say, not enough is being done to help the core problem: addiction.

"We have to get more accessible inpatient treatments. Most of the residential facilities in Indiana require insurance," explains Marshall. "A lot of clients don't have insurance. So we can help them get insurance with navigators and set up resources, but if they get incarcerated the process sort of goes on pause."

Brauneker agrees.

"We need them affordable for people. You can put up as many rehabs and living homes in the world that you want," she says. "But if it's not affordable for an addict, then how are they going to pay for it?"

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