In 2005, the United States reached what was thought to be the peak of the methamphetamine epidemic. Thousands of domestic labs dotted the country. Users were overdosing at unthinkable rates and law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), were doing their best to keep the synthetic substance off the streets.
At the height of domestic production, agents across the DEA St. Louis and Chicago Divisions, now recognized as the Omaha Division made up of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, were seizing less than one pound at a time in raids. Agents occasionally came across methamphetamine in the one-to-five pound quantities, but in 2005, only had eight seizures of 11 pounds or more. One raid, in July 2005, brought in an extremely rare 29 pounds of methamphetamine in Omaha, Nebraska.
Fast forward 14 years to a time when agents in Minnesota recently seized 250 pounds of methamphetamine in a single raid, and those in Iowa hit upon 119 pounds. Methamphetamine has made a deadly resurgence in the United States with high quantity loads coming in daily across the U.S. – Mexico border. Gone are the days of domestic super-labs and one-pot labs whose product often averaged 60 percent purity with potency varying upon the manufacturing method. Today’s methamphetamine from Mexico comes from mega-labs capable of producing hundreds of pounds of the drug in a single cycle, all with a purity in the upper 90th percentile and potency not far behind.
“A lot of people often confuse purity with potency,” DEA Omaha Division Assistant Special Agent in Charge Steve Bell said. “Purity is exactly that, how pure the actual product is. Potency is the effect the methamphetamine has on your body. It’s the determining factor in how high a person will get after using the substance. It’s possible to make a highly pure methamphetamine with a low potency that wouldn’t cause much effect to the body.”
Today’s Mexican methamphetamine is deadlier, easier to access and 71 percent cheaper than it was in 2005.
The Battle Began 100 Years Ago
Methamphetamine is a man-made drug originating from amphetamine in Japan in 1919. Originally used by soldiers in World War II to increase productivity and alertness, it gained popularity in the United States in the 1950’s as a prescribed diet aid, and a way to fight depression. In the 1960’s, methamphetamine pharmaceuticals were widely available and often abused. American college students began using meth to stay awake for class while truckers injected for cross country hauls.
The creation of the Controlled Substance Act in 1971 made methamphetamine use illegal in most cases, driving production and distribution underground. Today, only Desoxyn ® remains a pharmaceutical-grade methamphetamine.
Beginning in the 1980’s, West Coast motorcycle gangs refined production of methamphetamine, creating a product derived from ephedrine that was twice as potent as original methamphetamine. Meth cooks across the country began using cold medication pills to make their own one-pot labs, producing two ounces or less of methamphetamine. At the same time, super-labs, capable of producing 20 pounds of meth at a time, emerged in California as meth makers ordered large quantities of powdered ephedrine from overseas chemical companies.
Methamphetamine use came to a head in 2005, with Midwest prices topping out at $12,000 per pound. That same year, Congress passed the 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. The new legislation regulated over-the-counter sales of methamphetamine precursor chemicals such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine products. Medications such as Sudafed ® were locked behind pharmacy counters with identification requirements and limits set on daily and 30-day purchases. American methamphetamine producers were ultimately forced out of business and Mexican cartels took advantage of the vacuum that was created.
Facing New Highs
Methamphetamine seizures along the Southwest border increased 255 percent from 2012 to 2017 with the bulk of methamphetamine entering the Midwest by way of Arizona. Six months into 2019, DEA Omaha Division agents have collectively seized more than 1,400 pounds of meth estimated at $9 million. In all of 2005, agents seized 311 pounds in the same section of the country.
“It used to be almost unheard of in the Midwest to come across multiple pounds of meth in a single raid,” Bell said. “Anymore, double digit loads are becoming more common, with hundred pound hits not completely out of the range of possibility.”
Although the Mexican government placed restrictions on methamphetamine precursor chemicals, such as pseudoephedrine, Mexican cartels continue to adapt by finding alternative methods to manufacture the synthetic product. In similar fashion, cartels are also expanding their methods of smuggling methamphetamine into United States.
Methamphetamine, which can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, is finding its way into the country via liquid suspension, pills, powder and shards. A common misconception among Americans is that a shard of methamphetamine is Crystal Meth. In truth, any form of methamphetamine, powder, liquid or shard, that is 80 percent or higher in purity is known as Crystal Meth. Anything less than 80 percent purity is just methamphetamine.
As methamphetamine enters the country in its various forms, recrystallization labs are being setup across the United States posing a new threat to citizens, explosions.
“The solvents used to conceal methamphetamine for transportation across the border are highly volatile,” Bell said. “Once the shipment is received in the states, extractors work to pull the methamphetamine out of the solution which is often an acetone-based product. Vapors from the solvents are released into the air, and if the extractor isn’t careful, an explosion can easily occur.”
While the national spotlight remains justifiably on the opioid epidemic, DEA continues to monitor and increase public awareness about the potential lethality of methamphetamine, and the destruction it poses to our communities.
“The methamphetamine we’re seeing in the Midwest is cheap, highly potent and readily available,” Bell said. “It’s a drug that can bring out the absolute worst in people, and its addictive qualities make it hard to quit. Have those talks now with your family so that when someone comes to them offering a cheap, quick, high, they can make the best choice by walking away.”