Restricting access to some of the common products containing ingredients for making methamphetamine has worked, although meth makers continue to find ways around the limits.
“We’ve had some success in recent years, but you can’t solve the whole problem,” said Dale Woolery, associate director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “In this business you don’t use the word ‘solution.’ We’re mitigating it.”
“There’s always going to be a way to do it,” said Briana, 29, a former meth user and maker from Keokuk who’s currently in the Area Substance Abuse Council’s Heart of Iowa residential treatment program in Cedar Rapids.
After a decade off the drug, Briana, who didn’t want to be identified by her last name, began using meth t0 cope with a deteriorating, ultimately abusive, relationship with the father of her two young sons. Soon, she was making her own meth.
“I could make $1,000 a night, easy,” said Briana.
In 2005, state laws took effect restricting access to products containing pseudoephedrine, a must-have meth ingredient also used in over-the-counter cold medications. Retailers moved them behind the counter, and individuals may buy no more than 75 grams a month.
To get around limits on the availability of the key ingredient pseudoephedrine, Briana exchanged a gram of her finished product, or up to $100 cash, for a box of 12 or 24 cold tablets. A single box can produce up to 8 grams of methamphetamine, at $100 to $125 a gram.
A decade ago, “you could buy two or three boxes off the shelf, no big deal,” Briana said. “Putting a limit on the boxes slowed it down a lot.”
“We’re trying to make it tougher for people to get their hands on the key ingredient,” said Woolery.
After a peak of 1,500 in 2004 , meth lab seizures declined to 178 in 2007. Seizures have increased since, to 305 last year according to records kept by Woolery’s office.
In Linn County, 37 meth labs were seized last year, trailing only Polk County’s 47 in Iowa. Dubuque County was third, with 30 labs. There were 241 seizures statewide, down from 305 in 2009.
This year, 64 labs have been seized statewide through March 31, mostly in Dubuque County, 21. Six labs have been found this year in Linn County.
Dubuque County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dale Snyder, project director of the Dubuque Drug Task Force, said “the labs have gotten smaller and smaller” since the 2005 laws. “It looks like they’re cooking for smaller and smaller amounts.”
Cookers adapted, eliminating restricted ingredients or making better use them. A simplified “one-pot” recipe uses a single mixing vessel, usually a plastic two-liter soft drink bottle.
The one-pot method uses less pseudoephedrine and no anhydrous ammonia, another key precursor.
“I did the shake-and-bake,” another nickname for the one-pot method, said Briana. “The kids’ dad, he did the anhydrous, where they have to go out and tap the (storage) tank.”
Instead of anhydrous ammonia, stored as a gas in relatively large quantities for agricultural use, the one-pot method uses ammonium nitrate obtained from fertilizer stakes for lawn and garden use or cold packs for icing tired muscles.
Pseudoephedrine is still needed for either method.
Briana sold her product to a small circle of friends and acquaintances and to their friends and acquaintances.
“It’s kind of the friends and family approach, especially the one-pot,” said Woolery. “Unless they have dozens of those two-liter bottles going all at the same time, they’re making enough to use for now until they can get the next batch made.”
Briana’s trading meth for ingredients is also common, said Snyder.
“They’re supplying themselves and few other people who go out and buy (pseudoephedrine) pills for them,” said Snyder.
The National Precursor Log Exchange began operating in Iowa last September. The database funded by the pharmaceutical industry allows real-time tracking of met precursors by pharmacies and law enforcement.
Using the database, Iowa police and retailers blocked 22,919 illegal attempts to purchase pseudoephedrine, denying meth cookers 57 kilograms – about 125 pounds – of the ingredient, in the eight months through April 30. That would have made up to 116 pounds of meth by the most commonly used recipes, according to Woolery.
Woolery estimated homemade meth accounts for just 10 to 20 percent of the drug used by Iowans, but “it’s just easier to do on your own,” Briana said.
Anhydrous makes a better product, but “shake and bake is what you’ve got most of the time,” she said. “It’s quick and easy and it’s a 45-minute process.”
Briana, who worked at restaurants and motels during her 10 clean years, didn’t intend to use much when she started again.
“But when I got back on the drug, I just kind of secluded myself in my house,” she said.
She consumed increasing amounts of her product, but enough was left over to make make good, steady money for a high school graduate.
“That’s what ends up pulling a lot of people back on the drug,” said Katey Garoutte,
Briana’s counselor at Heart of Iowa. “They say, ‘I’m just going to deal, I’m not going to use.’ And it never goes well.”
She was never arrested or charged, but the precursor laws may have contributed to the end of Briana’s meth-making days. As her circle of pseudoephedrine-supplying acquaintances widened, someone tipped the Department of Human Services that she was making meth in the presence of her sons, now 2 and 7.
DHS workers visited Briana’s home. A drug test on a few snips of boys’ hair turned up positive for meth – in much higher concentrations than in her own body.
“It’s common for kids to have a higher number than their parents,” said Garoutte. “They’re smaller, and a lot closer to the ground” where residue collects.
The case was one of 169 child abuse or neglect cases last year investigated by the state Department of Human Services. That’s well under the level in 2004, but more than double the 2009 figure.
Faced with losing custody of her boys, Briana came to Heart of Iowa six months ago. Her sons joined here there, where she’s subject to periodic drug testing and other monitoring while working on quitting meth for good.
“It’s much harder to quit the second or third time,” said Garoutte.
Still, Briana is optimistic about her future, with the help of aftercare arranged through Heart of Iowa. When her residential treatment is done soon, she’ll return to Keokuk.
“I’ve still got a life back there I need to deal with,” she said.