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TN Meth Production Dips, Mexican Cartels Pick Up Slack

 This week the two state agencies that take the lead enforcing the state’s drug laws — the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Safety & Homeland Security — will present budget proposals to Gov. Bill Haslam.

Last year both department heads testified that home-cooked methamphetamine was the most pressing drug problem facing the state.  That led the Tennessee General Assembly to pass legislation last spring restricting the amount of pseudoephedrine products a person can buy. Cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine are often used in the meth-making process.

But the focus of the meth discussion has changed since.  In fact, it appears the Volunteer State’s crackdown on locally run meth operations could simply have resulted in helping outsource the meth-mixing to Mexico-based drug cartels — or at least accelerated the trend, which may have been moving in that direction anyway.

At a state Senate hearing on criminal justice reform this fall, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons testified before the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee that recent legislation, educational efforts and “vigorous law enforcement” had caused a significant drop in state meth lab seizures, which meant “less contamination and need for clean-up and fewer children being removed from homes at taxpayers expense.”

“At the same time, the Mexican drug cartels are becoming even more active in importing cheap crystal meth,” Gibbons said at the September hearing. “We’re seeing it on a regular basis through our interdiction efforts on our highways.”

Although in-state seizures are down about 40 percent from last year, a similar decline has been seen in other states, and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency attributes much of the decline to a recent uptick in cheaper, more potent Mexican cartel-produced “ice” coming into the state.

It’s a trend that’s been on the rise over the past few years: in 2012 the DEAidentified Mexico as the source of 80 percent of the US’s meth supply, and last December the Times Free Press reported an increase in the availability of Mexican “ice” in East Tennessee.

Tommy Farmer, director of Tennessee’s Methamphetamine Task Force, told TNReport last year that the problems posed by local meth labs – such as the danger of explosion, noxious fumes and the costs to properly dispose of the chemical waste – made dealing with domestic production the priority.

“I wish we didn’t have a drug problem at all,” Farmer said last fall. He added that he’d “pick the Mexican meth” if forced to choose a preferable primary source for supplying the state’s demand.

Tennessee’s top meth cop has maintained that stance, recently telling theTennessean that “when [methamphetamine] is manufactured in clandestine labs in Mexico, not clandestine labs in Tennessee, we don’t have the collateral damage. “

Farmer said the cartels are using existing supply chains for cocaine and heroin to bring crystal meth into the state. And Mike Stanfill, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA’s Nashville office, told the Nashville newspaper the federal agency has seen a significant increase in the amount of meth and cash dealers are seized with.

Additionally, while much of the newly imported “ice” can be traced to Atlanta, Stanfill said they’re beginning to see cartel-activity in Nashville.

Cartels Increasing Grip on American Drug Trade

The crackdown on local meth production has certainly translated into a larger cartel presence in the two U.S. states with prescription-only pseudoephedrine purchase requirements — Oregon and Mississippi.

Since the passage of its prescription law in 2005, Oregon has seen an increase in cartel activity — which has become so violent in the criminal organizations’ homeland that some small town Mexican police forces haveresigned en masse .

The Oregonian has reported an increase in violence and criminal activity from cartels in the Beaver State, particularly in rural areas where law enforcement may be less prepared to take on large-scale criminal operations.

And according to the AP, Mississippi law enforcement has uncovered “hundreds of kilos” of  “ice” processed in Mexican super-labs, which, according to a report by the federal Government Accountability Office, can produce up to 10 pounds of cheap crystal meth a day.

The cartels — some of which have allegedly struck deals with the DEA: giving up information on their competitors in exchange for their own activities being ignored — have been known to steal ore and petroleum in Mexico to trade for illegal methamphetamine precursor chemicals in China.

Addressing the Root of the Problem

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, characterized the situation as described in the Tennessean article as “a mixture of good news and bad news.” He added that “less usage” would likely be the best solution, and said the state could undertake “education efforts” with that aim.

Last December, when the discussion on precursor restrictions was getting underway in earnest, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said while he didn’t want to offer Mexican cartels an invitation to do business in Tennessee, public opinion in the state was such that the GOP-run government needed to try and look busy. “We don’t want to drive it underground, but at the same time you’ve got to do something, everything you can,” he said.

Rather than try to eliminate the supply of drugs, the Tennessee Medical Association — a professional association for physicians — wants the legislature to put more emphasis on treating the problems of addiction.

Much of the legislative focus has thus far been on the supply side of the equation, said TMA Director of Government Affairs Julie Griffin. “As long as there is a demand, people who want to break the law will find a way to supply whatever it is,” she said.

State Rep. William Lamberth, a Sumner County Republican, recently told TNReport the precursor restrictions were intended to reduce the labs in the state, not “the amount of meth that’s in our communities.” He added Tennessee has “still got to attack the underlying problem, which is the usage of methamphetamine.”

The former prosecutor, a member of Gov. Haslam’s Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, said the ongoing conversation on the task force has been on how to differentiate between tougher sentencing for “upper-level, repeat violent offenders,” and more leniency for “those entry-level, lower-level individuals that are drug addicted."