By Katelyn Newman | March 12, 2019
Law enforcement officers in the U.S. are struggling to tackle a resurgent methamphetamine problem that's been growing in the shadow of the opioid crisis, as much of the market's supply has shifted from a homemade product made in domestic labs to a purer and cheaper narcotic imported by foreign cartels.
"Demand is of course there, as it always has been – I would say it has gone up. But the supply … there's just so much more of it," says Sgt. Rick Jackson of the Pendleton Police Department in eastern Oregon.
Methamphetamine laboratory seizures have decreased across the United States to their lowest level in 15 years, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's 2018 National Drug Assessment report. Yet "methamphetamine remains prevalent and widely available, with most of the methamphetamine available in the United States being produced in Mexico and smuggled across the Southwest Border." Meanwhile, meth seizures by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations have grown substantially, from 14,131 pounds in fiscal 2012 to 56,373 in fiscal 2018.
Those trends have been evident in Missouri's Jefferson County, where the number of crackdowns on mom-and-pop meth labs has dropped significantly, from between 250 and 300 busts in 2011 and 2012 to just 16 in 2018, says Detective Sgt. Tony Dennis, head of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Narcotics unit. Yet the amount of meth seized grew more than 500 percent from 2017 to 2018, from 8.99 pounds to 56.48.
"There's still a lot of meth use going on, but the amount of meth labs seized or located (has) dramatically dropped off," Dennis says."There really isn't a reason to cook meth anymore on your own when you can get it for cheap on the streets."
In March 2006, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act went into effect, barring customers in retail pharmacies from direct access to medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to make meth. But Dennis attributes the switch he's witnessed on the ground to local laws requiring a doctor's prescription to access pseudoephedrine, "along with the cheap and the easy availability of Mexican meth coming up from the south."
"About nine or 10 years ago, they were selling it for about $100 a gram, and it's so cheap now they don't even sell it by the gram anymore," Dennis says. "We're getting a lot of people that have pounds of it, essentially – 1, 2, 3 pounds in their vehicles and stuff – because it's that cheap and available."
The transitions in price and quantity aren't unique to the Show-Me State.
A 2019 Drug Threat Assessment report for the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area – a 38,800-square-mile region consisting of 14 counties and a Native American reservation between the two states – says methamphetamine "continues to be highly available and widely used" and represents "the region's most critical drug threat." Fifty-five percent of law enforcement officers surveyed in 2017 listed methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat to their area, according to the report, with a majority saying it was the biggest drug contributor to violent crime and property crime.
Oregon, meanwhile, ranked second among states for highest meth use in the past year by people 12 and older, according to estimates from the federal government's 2016-2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Capt. Art Nakamura of the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs & Vice division says his department has been hampered in its ability to counter the proliferation of meth by a nationwide decline in recruitment and retainment of law enforcement officers.
The city is "between 80 and 100 officers short," he says, while department drug seizures have "gone up 63 percent in the last two years," reaching 134 kilograms (about 295 pounds) of meth seized in 2018.
While Nakamura says the Portland police department does not have an issue with funding, he says the lack of personnel presents a particular challenge as area businesses can help Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations blend into the community.
"These employees and employers … many of them have families, have children that attend the local schools, shop at the local stores, their goal is to not attract attention and blend in with the community," Nakamura says. "It is impossible to tell who is involved just by appearances."
For example, Nakamura says, investigators in 2004 found that an organization had been using a Mexican restaurant often frequented by local officers to launder money and aid their trafficking operations.
"The same family who was serving the officers food through the front door were involved in the DTO (drug-trafficking organization)," he says. "There were quite a few upset officers when we closed the restaurant down."
Such busts vary case to case, Nakamura says.
"We have seen auto body shops, used car dealerships, restaurants, clothing stores, nurseries, while other organizations' M.O. is to just transport bulk cash back to Mexico," he says. "The M.O. always changes and we have to adapt to them."
"They're not what you envision of a drug dealer, so identifying and upending these DTOs is really difficult," he says. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of resources that we don't have right now."
Jackson, of the Pendleton Police Department, says in the rural eastern Oregon counties of Umatilla and Morrow – covered by the multiagency Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team – the biggest drug threat is in "the eye of the beholder."
Looking at mortality alone, opioid-related deaths lead by far. But when looking at the number of crimes committed by people under the influence of a particular drug – from stealing cars and burglarizing homes to rapes and shootings – he says "meth is the No.1 common denominator."
"Nineteen years ago, it was all about chasing down anonymous tips for labs, because the smells were so potent – it was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, us finding meth labs, because they're so easy with the smells and stuff," Jackson says. "Our tactics now have changed over to more longer-term investigations. … It's more covert now."
Though meth use is reportedly higher among states in the West, areas farther east aren't immune.
At prices cheaper than marijuana, people are buying the drug by the ounce for just a couple hundred dollars, he says – a level officers never saw in the past. An analysis released in November also showed the number of unintentional overdose deaths involving psychostimulants – a category encompassing prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, as well as methamphetamine – grew exponentially in Ohio from nine in 2010 to 509 in 2017.
But while funding that can be used to fight the drug has been made available through federal grants and some state legislation, Lowe says many of Ohio's more than 40 drug task forces have experienced funding cuts in recent years, and the money they have received isn't enough to address a rapidly growing need.
For example, Lowe says his task force received about $250,000 in 2016 federal and state grant money, but received only about $211,000 in 2018 funding. His task force spent "a little over $350,000" to cover its three counties last year and made up the difference with asset forfeiture money, which he says is "not a stable funding source as it has diminished greatly over the past five years."
"In the midst of what has been described as a national (opioid) emergency and a national epidemic, we're taking funding cuts, and that makes it difficult to do the work that we're asked to do," Lowe says. "And it makes it virtually impossible for task forces or other drug enforcement operations to expand the scope of the work they do ... without very specific grant dollars tied to it."
"You become a grant administrator as opposed to a law enforcement professional trying to protect the community," he says.
With additional funding, Lowe says he would combat meth by hiring a full-time criminal intelligence analyst and improving the unit's technology to better adapt to the "rapidly changing methods of operation of drug traffickers and drug trafficking organizations."
He also says he would boost his unit's outreach program, which works to help those addicted to drugs begin a path to recovery.
"I view that as a much greater success and way to prevent further instances of drug crimes," he says.