The good news is meth labs in Springfield appear to have practically disappeared.
The bad news: Mexican meth distribution in the city has grown exponentially — so deeply infiltrating the area drug market that addicts seem to favor buying the more potent and less expensive drug over cooking it themselves.
In exclusive interviews with the News-Leader, local, regional and federal authorities described Mexican drug organizations like multinational corporations — working hard to capture the Springfield market by flooding the area with a better, cheaper product.
“Mexican meth has taken over,” said Dan Banasik, a task force member assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Springfield office.
“I think they are trying to take over the market.”
Despite the apparent halt of local production, Springfield police continue to find and seize meth at historic levels.
“I’ve never seen the amount of meth being seen here,” said Sgt. Bryan DiSylvester, who has investigated drugs in Springfield for more than 20 years.
“Back in the day — in the mid-90s — we used to seize an ounce and that was a pretty good pop. An ounce is nothing anymore.”
Police recovered more than 22 pounds of meth in 2013, which is more than a 1,000 percent increase over the year before. And the trend continues.
DiSylvester, who now heads the department’s narcotics unit, said that although meth from Mexico is imported into the city by the pound, it is distributed mostly by locals.
“We haven’t contacted the true, Mexican organized crime,” he said.
“We know people in other cities have contacts with people here, in the area, to distribute Mexican dope.”
DEA agents are intercepting growing amounts of meth as interstate shipments continue to head for the Springfield area.
Banasik said most shipments are believed to originate in Mexico and cross the U.S. border into Texas or California before traveling by courier to the Midwest.
Banasik said a recent investigation resulted in the discovery of about six pounds of meth.
“That used to be unheard of,” he said.
The drugs coming across the border are also more potent than homemade, Banasik said. Many recent seizures were found to be more than 90 percent pure. The highly potent meth, known as “ice” or “crystal,” has a more crystalline appearance than locally made powder.
On the street, buying Mexican meth might help users avoid detection, Banasik said.
Cooks risk getting caught buying acetone at the hardware store or getting pseudoephedrine at the pharmacy.
The drop in meth labs, Banasik said, might simply be a matter of convenience — buying the drug is less hassle than manufacturing it.
“Why bake cookies when you can buy them?” Banasik said.
Springfield police give at least some credit to enforcement efforts for the recent drop in labs.
Working with police, prosecutors have been trying to keep chronic cooks locked up while a case moves toward trial. But success has been limited.
Despite the drop in labs, there is no evidence that meth use has declined at all.
In fact, meth-related emergency room visits at Mercy Hospital have increased significantly in recent years.
In 2011, there were 76 cases in which meth was listed as the cause — either for use, abuse, dependence, addiction or poisoning.
So far this year, there has been 145 and, traditionally, the numbers peak during the summer months, according to data provided by Mercy.
The trend isn’t just in Springfield.
Sgt. Jason Grellner is former president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association and head of the drug unit in Franklin County, an area that is historically plagued by a large number of meth labs.
“There has been a huge ramp up of Mexican meth — flooding the market at a low price,” Grellner said.
Over the last several years, Grellner said, Mexican drug cartels have invested heavily in developing new procedures for creating large quantities of highly potent meth.
“It took them a while to get the price down,” he said.
“They had a lot of money in research and development.”
Grellner sees a direct relationship between the flood of Mexican meth and the drop in local labs.
As an example, Grellner described a recent three-month stretch without a single meth lab discovered in his jurisdiction.
Then, the drug unit seized a shipment of Mexican meth weighing more than a kilogram.
Within days, multiple meth labs began popping back up in Franklin County.
“The minute we got rid of a large amount of meth, we saw the labs again,” he said.
That’s why Grellner still supports prescription requirements for pseudoephedrine. It is used by meth cooks to make their products in small labs.
He credits, at least in part, the cities and counties requiring prescriptions with helping to reduce the number of labs found across the state.
Down from No. 1, Missouri now ranks third for meth lab incidents behind Tennessee and Indiana.
Those states are also struggling with an influx of Mexican meth, Grellner said, but only Missouri has 70-or-so communities that have outlawed pseudoephedrine without a prescription.
If Missouri law enforcement officials are able to disrupt the flow of imported meth, Grellner suspects addicts will quickly adjust by ramping up local production with meth labs.
“People who haven’t been addicted to drugs don’t know the power of that addiction,” Grellner said.
No measure in sight
A year ago, Springfield City Council was headed toward a vote that would have required a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
On the day of the vote, council members instead voted to delay the measure for a year. Councilman Craig Fishel, who led the effort to delay, said he believed the state legislature might take action against the main meth ingredient. Fishel said then that council should take up the issue again in June 2014, after the legislative session ended.
The legislature, as many predicted, did not pass any bills that would have further controlled pseudoephedrine in the state.
Today, with only five meth labs discovered so far this year, council is not expected to take up the issue.
Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky strongly endorsed a citywide prescription requirement last year. She chided her colleagues for delaying action on the measure.
She and others argued that the city should address the hazards of meth labs in the city. They’ve led to kids being exposed to toxic chemicals. They’ve exploded and caused fires that threatened the occupants of hotels and apartment buildings. They are expensive and dangerous to clean up.
So far this summer, Rushefsky and other supporters of a prescription requirement have been silent — citing the recent drop in meth labs.
“I don’t see any point in creating a controversy when there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need at the moment,” she said.
“If the situation deteriorates, then obviously we will have to look at it again.”