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Mexican meth increasingly supplanting at-home labs

 ST. LOUIS (AP) — The nation’s Heartland is ridding itself of the scourge of homemade methamphetamine, with lab seizures down by nearly half in many high-meth states. Any celebration is muted: Meth use remains high, but people are increasingly turning to cheaper, imported Mexican meth rather than making their own.

Meth lab busts and seizures are down 40 percent or more in states that traditionally lead the country in the undesirable category, narcotics experts told The Associated Press.

Enforcement actions and stricter laws are partly responsible, but the meth now coming through Mexican cartel pipelines is so cheap and pure that it is supplanting meth made in homes or soda bottles inside cars. The cartels have even expanded their meth reach to rural areas and small towns.

"The great news is that meth from Mexico doesn’t explode, doesn’t burn down your house and your neighbor’s home, doesn’t contaminate your property, doesn’t kill children the way meth labs have done here in the U.S. for decades," said Jason Grellner, the chief narcotics officer in Franklin County, Missouri.

Meth lab seizures peaked nationally in 2004, when nearly 24,000 labs were seized. The Drug Enforcement Administration reported 11,573 seizures last year (the most recent available), up 363 from 2012.

Grellner’s county has often topped 100 meth lab seizures in a year, but have only had about a dozen this year. Statistics provided by the Missouri State Highway Patrol show 558 meth lab seizures occurred statewide for the first six months of 2014, putting Missouri on pace for 1,116. That would be a 34 percent drop from the 1,496 meth lab seizures in 2013, and only a little over half in 2012.

The decline is more pronounced in other high-meth states.

In Tennessee, lab seizures are down 40 percent this year, said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Meth and Pharmaceutical Task Force. Oklahoma had 160 meth lab seizures through September and is on pace for 213 — about half last year’s seizure total, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward said.

One only needs to go to the morgue to know that, despite fewer lab busts, the meth problem isn’t going away.

In Oklahoma, which tracks meth-related deaths, 167 died of meth overdoses last year — up from 140 in 2012 and 108 in 2011, Woodward said. Figures for 2014 weren’t available. "I don’t think meth use has ever been higher in the state of Oklahoma," he said.

The Mexican cartels have long controlled the market for illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Meth was trickier. For years, many U.S. users have chosen to make their own, first in homemade labs that often caught fire or ruined houses. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s website lists thousands of homes contaminated by meth.

When federal and state lawmakers began implementing laws limiting the sale of key meth ingredient pseudoephedrine in the mid-2000s, it became difficult to obtain enough for large batches. Users turned to "one-pot" or "shake-and-bake" methods — mixing a couple of cold pills with household chemicals such as lighter fluid or drain cleaner in a 2-liter soda bottle.

Meanwhile, Mexican cartels have upped their meth-making, turning to an old recipe known as P2P that first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. It uses the organic compound phenylacetone — banned in the U.S. but obtainable in Mexico, according to the DEA — rather than pseudoephedrine.

Chemists in Mexico have refined the process to the point where the meth is both potent and cheap. The purity of Mexican meth increased from 39 percent in 2007 to essentially 100 percent today, said Jim Shroba, special agent in charge for the DEA’s St. Louis office. The price over that same period has fallen sharply, from $290 per pure gram to around $100 per pure gram.

Marijuana is by far the most seized drug in the United States, with DEA statistics showing 268,000 kilograms seized in 2013. That compares to 22,500 kilograms of cocaine, 3,990 kilograms of meth and 965 kilograms of heroin.

Shroba and other experts say there are other reasons, too, why meth seizures are down. Two states — Oregon and Mississippi — now require a prescription to buy pills containing pseudoephedrine. And federal law requires strict monitoring and limits on pseudoephedrine purchases.

At first, the Mexican meth was aimed mainly at big cities and suburbs. Indiana’s meth suppression commander Niki Crawford said it is increasingly showing up in her state’s mid-sized cities — Evansville, Terre Haute and Kokomo.

The imported drug has even reached rural areas. Woodward cited recent large-scale busts of distribution rings in communities like Lindsay (population 3,000) and Okmulgee (population 12,000). And Shroba said huge seizures of Mexican meth have occurred in rural areas of western Nebraska and Iowa.

"If they’re smoking weed or doing heroin in small-town America, there’s going to be a market for methamphetamine, too," Shroba said.

Woodward said the reduction in meth labs has "wonderful collateral benefits," meaning narcotics officers can turn attention to stopping trafficking.

"We all know that if we get a handle on meth labs, we will still have meth addicts who will work very hard to get their drug," Crawford said. "This is where the Mexican cartel meth will fill the void."