WASHINGTON —Methamphetamine usage, which appeared to be decreasing after a national crackdown five years ago, now appears to be on the upswing again as a result of increased activity among Mexican drug cartels and small-time domestic producers.
Recent reports show the incidence of methamphetamine use nationwide was essentially cut in half between 2006 and 2010, despite increased involvement from Mexican drug cartels. A survey conducted for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed usage nationally dropping from 731,000 people age 12 and older to 353,000 — this during a period when illicit drugs were on the upswing.
But there are reports that meth and the cartels are making a comeback. Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control, said much of the turf gained in the fight against meth “has now been lost” because of easy access to the substances used to make the product.
“Methamphetamine is unique from other illicit drugs of abuse because production of the drug requires no specialized skill or training, and its recipes are readily available on the Internet,” Rannazzisi said. “The precursor chemicals associated with this drug have also been historically easy to obtain and inexpensive to purchase. These factors have contributed to methamphetamine’s rapid sweep across our nation.”
In a report released last August, “National Drug Threat Assessment 2011,” from the National Drug Intelligence Center, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, it was revealed that methamphetamine usage was “increasing, especially among the young.” The jump was attributed to Mexican-based transnational criminal organizations that control smuggling routes across the Southwestern border and maintain the capacity to produce, transport, and/or distribute methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine is primarily smuggled across the Southwestern border in Southern California, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Seizures of methamphetamine along the border declined sharply in 2007 but have increased every year since. Most of the increase has been recorded in Southern California.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, two-thirds of the meth supply in the U.S. is produced by “super labs” in Mexico and Southern California and trafficked throughout the country. The remaining third is made in small meth labs found in basements, kitchens, garages, bedrooms, barns, vacant buildings, campgrounds, hotels and trunks of cars. The meth produced in small domestic laboratory operations is usually consumed locally.
In 2004, the U.S. raided a record number of illicit methamphetamine labs, leaving in their wake, according to Rannazzisi, toxic waste, deflated property values, rising crime rates, increased social costs and devastated lives.
The Rand Corp. placed the economic cost of meth use in the U.S. in 2005 at between $16.2 billion and $48.3 billion. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and The National Institute on Drug Abuse have invested tens of millions of dollars into researching the effects of meth and effective treatments.
In response, state and federal lawmakers adopted laws to control some of the essential ingredients that go into meth manufacturing — pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine, some of which are found in common cold remedies.
Some products, once easily available, were kept behind the counter so retailers could limit distribution, keep track of purchases and provide reports and information to state and federal authorities.
The increased federal restrictions became effective in September 2006 and included rules for employee training, product packaging and placement and log books. To purchase products containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, a customer must present identification and sign the log book at sales locations. Law enforcement can now identify anyone purchasing more than 9 grams of the substances within a 30-day period.
“These measures had an immediate and positive result,” Rannazzisi said. “Meth lab incidents plummeted and proved that effective chemical control could have a dramatic positive impact on illicit methamphetamine production.”
Federal praise for states restricting access
In 2006, the number of meth labs busted dropped 58 percent over 2005, but lab seizures began to rise again in 2008. Rannazzisi said the DEA and other law enforcement identified a criminal subculture supplying meth lab operators with large quantities of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.
According to the DEA, methamphetamine seizures rose from 2,839 in 2007 to 6,168 in 2010.
In response, the DEA has praised steps taken by Oregon, Mississippi and other states to make substances containing pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine available only by prescription. Oregon, which took that step in 2006, has seen a dramatic decline in lab busts — going from 192 in 2005 to just 10 in 2009.
The Kentucky General Assembly is considering legislation sponsored by state Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, that would make pseudoephedrine cold and allergy medicines available by prescription only. Lawmakers failed to pass similar legislation in 2011 despite the urgings of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, whose Southeastern Kentucky district is plagued by methamphetamine abuse.
The measure carries the support of the Kentucky State Police and other law enforcement groups but has drawn opposition from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and various over-the-counter drug producers maintain prescription laws place a hardship on users.
Law enforcement found 1,146 meth labs in Kentucky last year, up from 1,080 in 2010.
Rannazzisi said requiring a prescription for over-the-counter remedies that contain substances vital to meth production is “one option.”
“DEA is supportive of efforts by state, county and municipal jurisdictions to control access to the precursor chemicals from which methamphetamine can be manufactured, while at the same time, ensuring that such substances remain available for legitimate medical purposes,” he said. “At the federal level, DEA is committed to exploring all options, including legislative changes to place pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and their analogues in Schedule V, as prescription only substances.”
Meanwhile, the DEA and other law enforcement agencies continue the campaign against methamphetamine through traditional means. In August, for instance, the DEA announced the arrest and indictment of New York City-based drug kingpin Jose Mauro Mota and three fellow drug traffickers following the record-breaking seizure of 51 pounds of methamphetamine worth $4.8 million.
The shipment, according to authorities, was five times the size of the total amount of methamphetamine seized by the DEA’s New York Field Division in all of 2010. The shipment originated in Mexico and was transported to Texas where it remained for several weeks before being trucked across country.
Mota, described as one of the top drug kingpins on the east coast, was arrested as the meth was being transferred from a tractor-trailer to a car at an I-95 service area in Ridgefield, N.J.
“This case shows the direct link between drug trafficking in New York City and the Mexican cartels,” said Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor. A methamphetamine seizure of this size is rare in New York. “It appears that the Mexican cartels are now attempting to directly distribute this dangerous drug in the New York area.”