STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Michigan started tracking kids' exposure to meth in 2010. The numbers are still getting worse.

You see it on your local TV news every few weeks. Or maybe a small article in the paper.

Another fire. Another bust. Another story about meth.

The statistics tell the rest of the story: Methamphetamine use and productionis on the rise in Michigan.

And last year, more children were exposed to meth labs than at any time since the state started keeping track.

Paul Matyas is the undersheriff in Kalamazoo County, a hotbed for meth activity in Michigan.

He says anyplace that’s been used to make meth has a pungent stench. Residue gets everywhere.  

"All these meth houses are the same,"Matyas says. "They’re in total disarray, there’s just junk laying all over. The meth labs are also just laying all over. You might find this one in the bathroom. You might find the next one in the kitchen."

Nationally, the number of meth cases peaked in 2004, but in Michigan, the numbers are still going up.  

Meth isn’t used as frequently as some other illegal drugs. What makes it a unique risk is how it’s made – in small batches in motel rooms or homes.

"Their excuse is always, 'Well we keep it away from the kids,' That's a farce. That doesn't happen at all."

Matyas says, often, the people making the meth have kids.

"Their excuse is always, ‘Well we keep it away from the kid,'" he says. "That’s a farce. That doesn’t happen at all."

Michigan’s Child Protective Services keeps track of how many kids each year are removed from their homes because of exposure to meth production. Last year, the state had more cases than any year since it started keeping track in 2010.

"I don’t know if we’ve seen a peak," says Colin Parks, with Michigan Child Protective Services. Parks says in 2014, CPS had 556 cases of children exposed to the production of meth. That’s 43% more than the previous high in 2012.

And while there are other drugs that affect more children, dealing with meth cases is often more complicated – because meth is often a drug of choice for people too poor to afford other drugs. And because of the health consequences of being exposed to meth fumes or other meth chemicals.

"So these may not be our highest numbers," Parks says, "but they use a significant amount of our resources to help these families."

Michigan has laws in place to try to stop people from using household items to make meth. There are restrictions on one key ingredient: cold or allergy medicines that contain pseudo-ephedrine or ephedrine.

Last year, the governor signed new laws to impose more restrictions on, and more penalties for misusing, those kinds of medicine.

But a federal Government Accountability Office report from 2013 found that the kinds of laws Michigan has in place haven’t been effective at stopping meth production.

There is one policy Michigan hasn’t tried yet: Making all medicine that contains pseudo-ephedrine prescription-only.

"I think there’s been some reluctance in the past to do that, but it just points to how badly you want to eradicate the problem," says Kalamazoo County Undersherriff Paul Matyas. He stops short of advocating any particular policy. But he says if you make it harder to get the key ingredient in making meth, the number of meth labs in Michigan might finally start to go down.

Both Oregon and Mississippi went ahead with the prescription-only policy for medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine. The number of meth labs in each state dropped significantly, according to the GAO report.

In Michigan, the number of meth labs is still going up. And more children are being exposed.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.