Heroin and cocaine have been grabbing headlines in Medford recently — including $1 million worth of heroin seized on a bus traveling through town in February — but they are a long way from topping the drug market here.

Heroin and cocaine have been grabbing headlines in Medford recently — including $1 million worth of heroin seized on a bus traveling through town in February — but they are a long way from topping the drug market here.

"Meth is still king," said Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson.

Johnson, who is a supervisor for the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement team, makes his point by dumping a pile of crystal shards on a table in the department's evidence room.

This batch of methamphetamine was seized from a suspect who has since been convicted on felony drug charges.

"There's probably just over a gram in this one bag," Johnson said. "Check out the quality of this stuff. You know how gasoline comes in regular and premium? This is premium."

Johnson puts on plastic gloves and holds up a large wedge of high-end meth. The shards resemble bits of foggy glass.

"We never used to see this kind of meth in the valley," he said. "It used to be the powder stuff that was low quality."

Much of that particular brand of meth was created in grimy labs across the state. Meth "chemists" would combine an array of chemicals, some of which could unclog your bathroom drain, with pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter cold medicine.

The result would be a white or brown powder that turned into sludge in the chamber of a meth pipe.

However, a 2005 law calling for the regulation of pseudoephedrine sounded the death knell for meth labs in Oregon.

Pills containing pseudoephedrine have been available by request only and kept behind pharmacy counters since July 2006.

A government-issued identification card, such as a driver's license, is required to buy it.

One meth lab has been found in Jackson County in recent years — a small lab discovered earlier this year on a shabby property near Sams Valley.

"It could have been three or four years old," Johnson said. "It's not worth doing anymore."

Just because the labs are gone doesn't mean the market for meth has disappeared.

Never ones to pass up on a lucrative business venture, large drug cartels based in Mexico have filled the void left by the pseudoephedrine law.

These "super labs," as Johnson calls them, produce most of the meth moving up and down Interstate 5.

"Most of what we see comes from south of the border," Johnson said. "And it's all crystal, not powder."

In 2011, MADGE seized about 22 pounds of meth — a 134 percent increase from the previous year.

Meth busts come in all sizes.

Medford police Officer Ernie Whiteman Jr. works the weekend graveyard shift. He deals mostly with drunken drivers and people who have had a few too many and become feisty outside the bars.

As Whiteman cruised Riverside Avenue on a recent night, he recalled an instance not long ago when he pulled up beside a driver who was acting erratically behind the steering wheel.

"He was jerking back and forth and had a lot of exaggerated movements," Whiteman said. "I pulled him over and he failed the (sobriety) test. He said he hadn't been drinking, but had done a bunch of meth before getting behind the wheel."

Whiteman said the man could barely focus enough to answer simple questions.

"He shouldn't have been driving," he said. "Of course, most of the impaired drivers we see have been drinking, but not all."

Soon after, Whiteman was called to assist Officer Josh Spano, who had found a meth pipe on someone walking near a grocery store in East Medford.

The man said he was from the Rogue Valley, but had moved to Texas a few years ago. When asked why he moved way, the man said it was to get away from his friends who were heavily into the local meth scene.

The pipe Spano found had a light dusting of residue along the stem. The officer wrote the man a citation for carrying drug paraphernalia and placed the pipe in an evidence bag.

"I haven't done that stuff in five years," the man said. "I just want to kick the (expletive) outta myself for doing it last night."

Whiteman gave the man some words of encouragement before sending him off.

"Work your way back up to five years sober again, man," Whiteman said. "And then make the decision to never do this stuff again."

Johnson said a gram of meth sells for about $100 in Medford. It's slightly cheaper than heroin, which runs between $120 and $150 per gram based on quality.

Johnson said he was surprised by overdose death numbers released this week by the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office.

Nine deaths related to methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine — or a combination of two or more of the drugs — were recorded last year in Jackson County, up 200 percent from the three reported in 2010. Of those nine deaths, eight were caused by methamphetamine or a combination involving it. In 2010, two of the three deaths were methamphetamine-related.

"We normally don't see a high death rate from meth overdose," he said.

One culprit could be the higher quality crystal that has become prevalent in the area, Johnson said.

"We can't say for sure, though, because you never know what else might be involved in an overdose case," Johnson said. "They tend to be different from each other depending on the circumstances."

One thing that is clear to local cops is that Medford's continuing property crime problems are a result of high meth use in the area.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said a series of recent tool thefts and identity thefts are tied into the meth scene.

"One usually follows the other," Budreau said. "People steal to buy meth. Their addiction gets so strong that they will go on sprees breaking into cars and businesses."

A large stolen-property case in late March is believed to have been perpetrated by a meth addict.

Tommy James Loftis, 33, of Gold Hill, was arrested earlier this month when police found $13,500 worth of property in Loftis' Gold Hill home on Blackwell Road. Detectives spent several hours going through the items and ultimately linked the property to thefts and burglaries in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Loftis has since been cited on meth charges in addition to his felony theft counts.

In February, Tanya Marie Bearden, 23, was arrested after allegedly committing a series of car break-ins and identity thefts around Medford.

Police believe Bearden was attempting to feed her meth habit when she used credit cards stolen from cars to purchase property around Medford.

Johnson said that while meth remains the drug of choice in the area, it could be supplanted sometime in the near future.

"We are seeing a steady rise in heroin and cocaine around here," he said. "Some people have been turning away from meth for heroin."

MADGE seized close to six pounds of heroin last year. The department expects to collect a similar amount this year, maybe more.

"Black tar heroin is coming up fast," he said. "It's the little brother of meth right now, but it could soon be the big brother."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.