WASHINGTON – The methamphetamine problem in the United States is complex. It ranges from the simplicity of a clandestine lab in a Wal-Mart bathroom to a failed attempt at sending a drone carrying 6 pounds of the synthetic drug into the country over the border from Mexico.
Mexican drug trafficking organizations are moving to fill the void left by dismantled U.S. meth labs. Mexico’s regulations of meth’s key ingredients – pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine products – are less strict than those in the U.S., where the sale of allergy and cold pills containing any of the decongestants was limited in 2006.
With easy access to these ingredients, organizations are able to produce a cheaper, better meth than what can be produced in the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that about 90 percent of the methamphetamine sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 67 percent increase in methamphetamine seizures from 2011 to 2014. While marijuana tops the list of seized drugs, seizures of hard drugs such as heroin and meth are on the rise. Heroin seizures increased 70 percent over the same time.
San Diego, one of the biggest U.S. meth production hubs a decade ago, accounted for nearly 63 percent of meth seized nationwide at all ports of entry last year.
Amy Roderick, DEA spokeswoman in San Diego, said the agency has seen the synthetic drug’s presence grow and smuggling techniques become more creative.
“They – the traffickers – are only limited to their imagination. … We’ve seen something as unsophisticated as people throwing it – the drug – over the fence, all the way to … a failed attempt with a drone to bring the meth across the border,” she said.
San Diego Customs and Border Protection seized 14,732 pounds of meth last year. In 2010, it was 5,456 pounds. The seizures of crystal meth, a form of methamphetamine, are also on the rise.
The smuggling trend follows the pattern of narcotics smuggling. Traffickers divide large amounts of drugs into small packages that are easier to conceal.
“They take 100 pounds, they break them into 10 cars, and they send all 10 cars to the ports of entry hoping some of that gets through,” Roderick said.
In a new technique, smugglers dissolve meth in windshield wiper fluid containers, gas tanks or soda bottles before transporting it across the border. Once it’s inside the U.S., they dry it out.
“If you didn’t test that, you wouldn’t know it is methamphetamine dissolved in water or alcohol,” Roderick said.
Methamphetamine production and trafficking gives Mexican drug cartels the opportunity to control the drug’s process from production to distribution. Before, they played middlemen between Colombian cartels and consumers in the United States, especially for hard drugs such as cocaine, according to law enforcement authorities.
Traffickers from Mexican drug organizations buy the ingredients for meth in bulk, a DEA spokesman said, from China, India and other Asian and South Asian countries.
The meth coming in from the Southwest border is spreading throughout the country, displacing local meth lab production.
The National Drug Control Strategy reported that a little over a decade ago, meth labs and dump sites — the remains of meth labs — were more evenly spread throughout the country, with the biggest concentration hubs in California and Washington. Now, meth labs appear to be concentrated in the Midwest.
But authorities report that the number of lab seizures and dump sites in those states has been going down. Access to Mexican meth on the market has gone up.
Ralph Weisheit, a criminal law professor at Illinois State University, has studied the methamphetamine phenomenon. He said it’s a simple equation: When local labs disappear, people who use meth still need a supply and are now getting their fix from the imported synthetic drug.
The problem with that, he said, is communities saw a visible form of the meth problem when the labs, and every danger that came with them, were around. Once meth became a street drug, it was less visible.
“In the Midwest, we’ve had meth for a long time, well before homemade production became big,” he said. “But most people didn’t know much about it.”
Sheriff Keith Cain from Daviess County, Ky., who is the chair of the Drug Enforcement Committee for the National Sheriffs’ Association, said that labs continue to be a problem, but law enforcement is now looking into catching drug trafficking organizations.
Across the country, the number of clandestine meth labs has gone down significantly. In Washington, however, methamphetamine is the No. 1 drug tested in the state police’s labs, accounting for 55 percent of all drugs tested.
Washington state law enforcement officials said the meth problem is about demand.
Sgt. James Mjor of the Washington State Patrol said the market for the synthetic drug is being supplied with Mexican meth.
Ten years ago, according to data from the National Drug Control Strategy, most of the meth in the state was produced locally.
“The use of the drug is staying consistent, either because we’re not doing a good job of enforcing or we’re not educating enough on the dangers of the drug,” Mjor said.
Experts and law enforcement officials agree that demand is a key problem. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports there are about 600,000 users of methamphetamine in the country — a number that accounts for less than 1 percent of drug users.
Marijuana is the most used drug with about 20 million users. Cocaine comes in second with 1.5 million.
Experts agree, however, that the number of users may be under-reported.
Weisheit said he believes there is no way to know how many users there are because most estimates of how much meth is being used are based on household surveys.
“If you are someone who is a methamphetamine user and someone says, ‘Hello, I’m from the government. I’d like to ask you about your drug use…’” he said, “the miracle is that anyone agrees they use.”
Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in studying drug trafficking and border culture, said he believes that under-reporting happens because meth use is “heavily stigmatized.”
John Carnevale, president of Carnevale Associates, has served in three presidential administrations and under four “drug czars.” He said that the key policy issue regarding methamphetamine is how to reduce demand.
“The methamphetamine problem, in terms of meth use in the U.S., has basically been unchanged over the past decade,” he said. “We’ve not had as much luck convincing customers to curb their appetite for this product. To meet that demand, non-U.S. sources are now starting to supply the market.”
In the early 1990s, the illicit methamphetamine manufacturing business took off – especially in rural areas where there was access to anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen fertilizer that is a prime ingredient in the synthetic drug.
People stole fertilizer from farms and used ephedrine or pseudoephedrine to synthesize the drug.
After Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephredrine were moved behind the pharmacy counter. The number of labs started to drop significantly.
The federal law limits the amount of pseudoephedrine an individual can purchase to 3.6 grams in a single day and 9 grams a month. A prescription is required to buy more. Buyers must show a government-issued photo ID and sign a logbook.
A couple of years after the law was enacted, the number of labs began to rise again. In 2008, the Methamphetamine Production Prevention Act made record-keeping laws stricter.
States affected by meth, such as Kentucky, have started to see the number of labs drops. Cain said that, since 2012, the number of labs in Kentucky has dropped by 56 to 70 percent in different areas of the state. Authorities, however, are now making large seizures of crystal meth produced elsewhere – most likely in so-called “superlabs” in Mexico or South America.
“The eternal optimist would look for something good in this, and the good thing is that at least, on the local level, we – law enforcement – no longer have to deal with all the dangers from the meth labs themselves, which were considerable,” Cain said.
Weisheit said he thinks the issue now is about the country deciding what problem it wants to have.
“You did see domestic violence with labs, but you didn’t see people fighting over turf,” he said. “You now have another problem with the Mexican meth. Now, you have a cash business and the violence that goes along with other drug business.”
Legislation, according to authorities, has not caught up. Mjor said Mexican meth is taking over because the punishments for making meth are more strict than those for possession.
In Washington state, for example, the punishment for cooking meth is up to five years of jail, but getting caught with less than a pound of meth can mean a shorter sentence and a fine up to $10,000.
In the Midwest, prescription narcotics are supplying part of the drug market. The effects of Aderall, used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder, mimic those of meth.
Experts agree that the future of meth is uncertain, as hard synthetic drugs tend to go in cycles. Some of them said, however, that they believe there will be a drop of labs due to law-enforcement response. But Mexican cartels will step up and keep supplying as long as there is a demand.
Reach reporter Alicia Alvarez at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.