Late last week, when federal drug enforcement authorities took down what they say was a methamphetamine lab hidden behind an historic cemetery in St. Johnsbury, many residents were shocked.
After all, it’s pretty unusual for a long line of police cars, ambulances, fire engines, and hazmat trucks to block a key intersection. But that’s what happened in this Northeast Kingdom town last week.
After dismantling the lab near the cemetery, the police caravan snaked to a quiet residential street. That’s where a search team evacuated a six-unit apartment and blocked access to it with yellow tape as they searched for of another meth processing lab or storage. Kids were playing in an adjacent yard. Alfredo Roman, a neighbor, looked concerned.
"And I play out here with my 4-year-old kid with his little friends. It’s not good for the kids to be around stuff like that," he said.
Across the street, on the front porch of a sprawling lavender house, a couple of young adults gawked at the swarm of police. This is called the Living Room-a resource center operated by Northeast Kingdom Youth Services.
One of the young adults who hangs out here is Billy Joe Budziscewski. He said he’d be surprised if meth has come to this neighborhood, but he’s seen plenty of it in southern states, where his relatives live.
"It’s most of my family’s drug of choice, like everyone in my family that’s down South and everything, it’s their top-of-the-line favorite thing. It keeps them awake. It keeps ‘em going," he said.
And, he added, they ended up addicted and on the street. That’s a future this 21-year old wants to avoid. But State Police Lieutenant Mike Henry fears meth is moving through rural Vermont.
"This is one of the first cases that we’ve had here. It may be something that’s going to be more prevalent because it is so easy to manufacture this stuff that anybody can do it, " Henry said.
The apartment turned out to be empty of dangerous chemicals. But two men were charged in federal court with conspiracy to produce meth in connection with the lab near the cemetery. On the Living Room porch, Marisa Godfrey said meth users have plenty of other sources in the Northeast Kingdom.
"If you bust somebody they’re still going to find someone else to get it from," Godfrey said.
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive synthetic stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Although relatively rare in Vermont, it’s hard to know how rare, because you don’t need a big lab – you can make it in a single soda bottle in a basement. US Attorney Tristram Coffin lists three major cases so far – one in St. Albans, another in Island Pond, and this one in St. Johnsbury.
"We have seen some of it and when we do see it, as I say, we move on it in a really aggressive fashion because it’s a terrible drug and it’s the kind of thing we don’t want to let get any kind of foothold here," Coffin said.
Coffin told VPR he wants to keep meth at bay while the state concentrates on the bigger problems of heroin and other opiates.