Metal and Methamphetamine

posted 25/08/05

It will probably never be mentioned in a campaign speech, and it will never be the subject of a task force or a strike force. It attracts little interest among media or law enforcement, yet it's a growing problem, just one of many connected to methamphetamine.

I speak of scrap-metal theft.

Minnesota, as the rest of the country, has been facing some tough times over the last decade, and an ever-growing number of businesses have failed, their property laying vacant, their buildings unused. Vacant buildings and abandonments have always attracted their fair share of ne'er-do-wells - homeless, teenagers looking for a quiet place to drink/smoke/party/couple, "urban explorers" doing their thing - but in recent years a new group has crawled out of the metaphorical woodwork in huge numbers. Swarming thru old buildings at all hours of day and night, these hacksaw-wielding assholes remove copper wiring and pipe for it's scrap value - around $1/pound, apparently - with no regard at all for the buildings or even their own safety.

They're not doing it for noble reasons, either. They're not putting their kids thru college, not paying off their student loans with the money they get. No, they're supporting drug habits, usually meth.

Here in Saint Paul, the Stroh's brewery has been vacant for more than a decade. Now owned, in part, by the City, it sat reasonably untouched for eight years or so, to judge from photos taken in 2000 and 2001. But, practically overnight, that changed. The copper domes of the brewing tanks in the brewhouse were among the first things to quietly disappear, several tons of easily-accessible metal vanished in a matter of weeks. Wiring went next, followed by hundreds of yards - and pounds - of pipe. The police know about it, the former owners knew about it, and the City knows about it. Yet the brazen thieves operate in broad daylight, unimpeded except for the occasional meddling passerby; the buildings aren't boarded, the holes they cut in fences and the locks they cut off gates aren't repaired, and the leeches continue to suck metal - and money - out of the historic buildings.

It's not just Stroh's, either. Pretty much every building that's been vacant for more than a month in the Twin Cities area has lost it's wiring and plumbing. Across the metro area, I'd guess copper theft is close to a thousand dollar-a-day industry, not counting the huge profits the scrap yards make. Yet virtually nothing is done to stop it. Even provided with descriptions and license-plate numbers, the police do nothing. They do nothing to patrol common sources of theft, they do nothing to deter or discourage the thieves, and they do nothing about the scrap dealers, who know damned well where all the wiring and pipe they buy comes from. I mean, come on, when two well-dressed yuppie teenagers show up at a scrapyard with a hundred-pound piece of six-inch copper pipe in the trunk of their car, anyone with two brain cells to rub together ought to be able to figure out it's stolen. Especially when they're back three, four, five times a week. But, no, nothing happens to them, either. Why? Is it corruption? Are the police on the take?

Nope, it's much simpler than that. Breweries, factories, warehouses, mills, and other abandoned buildings are sacrificial victims of the war against meth. Clueless - and powerless - to combat meth effectively, law enforcement have thrown vacant and abandoned buildings to the wolves as a delaying tactic. Every backpack full of wire or pipe taken from these places is a car stereo or television not stolen, a purse not snatched, a taxpayer - and voter - not mugged to feed someone's habit. Buildings don't vote, and abandoned buildings produce no tax revenue, so this is - politically - a safe tactic.

Well, mostly safe, anyway. I believe it's going to lead to a few unpleasant surprises in the near future. For one, I think the meth problem in metropolitan areas is, at present, underestimated compared to rural areas. With fewer sources of copper outstate, rural meth users are more likely to fall on theft, robbery, shoplifting, and burglary to feed their addictions, while, with everyone overlooking the huge flow of "free" funding in and around cities and their abandonments, the usual metric in metro areas - drug-related crime - is lower than it otherwise would be. Secondly, I think that we're all going to be in for a rude awakening when currently-existing sources of easily-accessible copper scrap are exhausted, and drug-related crime skyrockets. People with $100-a-day habits can waltz in and out of their neighborhood abandonments every day, supporting their addiction with an hour or so of work and a backpack of metal. Given pawn-shop prices for popularly-stolen electronics, supporting the same habit through theft and burglary requires a one-man or -woman crime spree... every single day of the year, until they're caught.

Ceding abandoned buildings to meth users would be a forgiveable delaying tactic in the war on drugs... if there were an actual strategy to follow up with, but there isn't. No, at least in Minnesota, the out-of-control problem is being addressed only indirectly, by targeting symptoms, rather than causes. Nobody has a freaking clue what to do about meth users, so they pass laws to make it harder for meth cooks to get their raw ingredients. What's the effect? Meth prices go up, addicts have to steal still more to support their habits. The theft gets to be a problem... so what do we do? Launch public-awareness campaigns urging people to lock their doors, install security systems, and add motion-activated lighting around their property. What's the effect? Addicts turn to shoplifting, or robbery... or any of dozens of other ways of getting the money they need to support their habits. If we did something about the addicts, and the dealers, maybe we'd get somewhere. Sadly, in a world where the war on drugs has taken the back burner to fear-mongering and the war on terror, that's unlikely to happen.


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