Sarasota sheriff says meth is the ‘new emergency.’ Is that true for Manatee, too?

Meth and guns found after Sarasota undercover operation

Sheriff Knight announced the results of #OperationIceMama, an undercover investigation that yielded methamphetamine and firearms. The investigation began in 2018 after connecting Jennifer Lambert to the sale and distribution of methamphetamine.
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Sheriff Knight announced the results of #OperationIceMama, an undercover investigation that yielded methamphetamine and firearms. The investigation began in 2018 after connecting Jennifer Lambert to the sale and distribution of methamphetamine.

After seizing hundreds of grams of methamphetamine and arresting more than a dozen people after a months-long investigation, the Sarasota County Sheriff declared the drug is the “new emergency.”

In Manatee County, meth is trending upward, but cocaine and opioids are still among leading concerns for investigators.

In a news conference live-streamed to social media Thursday, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said his office is seeing a shift in drugs on the street from opioids to a resurgence of methamphetamine.

But not just any backyard, run-of-the-drug-mill meth.

“What we’re seeing is pure meth, very well produced meth, very pure,” Knight said. “All joking aside, this is kind of like the Walter White meth from ‘Breaking Bad.’ This is high-level meth.”

Heroin and other opioids such as fentanyl used to be the emergency in the area, according to Knight.

“(The opioid) emergency is gone. The emergency now is methamphetamine and the supply is huge,” Knight said.

Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Division Capt. Todd Shear wouldn’t say his office has turned the page from opioids to meth. Deputies are still buying pure fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine in the streets.

“Meth seizures have risen over the last few years, but so has cocaine. Despite our successes last year in reducing (overdoses) and deaths related to heroin and fentanyl, we are still seeing it on our streets as well,” Shear said.

On Thursday, Knight announced the arrests of 16 people he said are believed to be involved in methamphetamine operations in Sarasota County as part of an 8-month investigation known as Operation Ice Mama.

The ringleader, he said, is a 44-year-old woman named Jennifer Lambert, who goes by “Mama Jen.” Lambert was charged with one county of trafficking in meth and seven counts of conspiracy to traffic in meth.

The Nokomis woman has been on the sheriff’s radar for 10 years, Knight said, and she has several prior drug-related charges, including two felonies. Detectives connected her to seven drug transactions where she allegedly conspired to traffic meth, according to the sheriff’s office.

Three others arrested — Robert Cain, 35, of Sarasota; Randy Greene, 48, of Nokomis; and Erick Walker, 38, of Venice — were identified as mid-level dealers. All three were charged with conspiracy to traffic in meth along with other drug-related charges.

The other 12 people arrested as part of Operation Ice Mama were considered street-level dealers, Knight said.

The 16 arrested face a total of 57 felony charges as part of the ongoing investigation.

operation ice mama.jpg
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office

Investigators seized more than 287 grams of meth, two guns and other drugs as part of Operation Ice Mama.

Shear said in Manatee County, deputies seized 3,720 grams of meth in 2018. In the first three months of 2019, they seized more than 623 grams.

“We are trending upward in terms of the amount seized and with that comes more arrests,” Shear said.

This year, Bradenton police have responded to four drug overdoses where meth was either used or found at the scene.

One person told police he had been smoking meth for five days when the overdose was reported on Jan. 23. Another person became unresponsive on Feb. 7 after reportedly injecting meth and heroin.

In March, a woman overdosed after injecting a combination of meth and cocaine, known as a speedball, her boyfriend told police.

Meth was also found in the pockets of a man who overdosed but revived with naloxone on May 3.

In 2018, Bradenton police responded to 65 drug overdoses, eight of which reportedly involved meth. Two incidents were fatal.

One man who reportedly overdosed on meth was taken by a friend to Manatee Memorial Hospital, according to a report filed on May 13, 2018. There, it was determined he had a mix of meth and opioids in his system. He later died.

On July 1, 2018, a man was found dead in his room and a bag of white powder found on his dresser tested positive for meth, according to police.

Later that month, a woman overdosed in her vehicle. Paraphernalia and other drugs including meth and cocaine were found inside the vehicle, according to police.

As for the increase in quality and purity in the meth noted by Sheriff Knight, Shear said that’s consistent across most drugs.

Knight said some of the reason they are seeing the resurgence in the drug is cost. As the cost has decreased, its quality has increased.

“In 2012, the DEA reported undercover agents were buying meth off the streets for $1,100 an ounce,” Knight said.

Now, they’re buying it for nearly half that price, about $400 to $600 an ounce, he said.

Knight said the meth is coming from Mexico and drug cartels that are manufacturing the drug.

Shear agreed, saying they have some drug cases that have led investigators to the border, as well as intercepted drugs in the mail from Mexico.

Their intent, Shear said, is to reduce supply by reducing the demand, which means helping those who are addicted get the help they need.

“I think this is just another reminder to our community of what law enforcement is facing. We are focusing on dismantling and disrupting the drug trafficking organizations. That’s our primary focus,” Shear said.

Throughout Florida, there was a 42 percent increase in deaths caused by methamphetamine, according to the 2017 annual drugs in deceased persons report. The drug was the cause of 464 deaths and was present in 394 other deaths in Florida in 2017, for a total of 858 occurrences, about 75 percent of which the report said were accidental.

A graph showing a historical overview of meth occurrences in deaths (both present and as the cause) shows a spike between 2015 and 2017, when the number of occurrences in the state jumped from just over 300 to 858.

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Florida Department of Law Enforcement

In Manatee County, there were between 5 and 9.99 meth-related deaths per 100,000 people, according to the 2017 report.

For Medical Examiner Russell Vega, who is examiner for Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, he believes deaths caused by meth are less a resurgence and more a relatively new phenomenon.

“We never really had a large number of deaths by methamphetamine in the past, though the numbers have definitely shot up recently,” Vega said in an email to the Bradenton Herald.

In 2014, Manatee County had five deaths caused by meth, seven in 2015, 13 in 2016 and 21 in 2017. The data for 2018 is not complete, but according to what Vega has determined, so far there were at least 19 deaths caused by meth in the county that year.

However, he does not expect the number to rise much.

Cocaine a cause for concern

Equally concerning for Shear and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office as meth is cocaine.

Cocaine caused the most drug-related deaths in Florida in 2017, the report showed. In Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, there were 132 deaths involving cocaine, and it was the cause of deaths for 96.

A spike can be seen between 2014 and 2017 on a graph tracking cocaine related deaths in the state.

cocaine deaths 2017.JPG
Florida Department of Law Enforcement

Manatee, Brevard and Lee counties saw a rate of 20 to 24.99 occurrences of cocaine deaths per 100,000 people, according to the report. The only counties with a higher occurrence rate were Monroe, Palm Beach and Duval, which recorded more than 25 occurrences per 100,000 people.