January 23, 2006
Mexican Meth Floods In as States Curb Domestic Variety
New York Times by
DES MOINES, Jan. 18 - In the
seven months since Iowa passed a law restricting the sale of
cold medicines used to make methamphetamine, seizures of
homemade methamphetamine laboratories have dropped to just
20 a month from 120. People once terrified about the
neighbor's house blowing up now walk up to the state's drug
policy director, Marvin Van Haaften, at his local Wal-Mart
to thank him for making them safer.
But Mr. Van Haaften, like
officials in other states with similar restrictions, is now
worried about a new problem: the drop in home-cooked
methamphetamine has been met by a new flood of crystal
methamphetamine coming largely from Mexico.
Sometimes called ice, crystal
methamphetamine is far purer, and therefore even more highly
addictive, than powdered home-cooked methamphetamine, a
change that health officials say has led to greater risk of
overdose. And because crystal methamphetamine costs more,
the police say thefts are increasing, as people who once
cooked at home now have to buy it.
The University of Iowa Burn
Center, which in 2004 spent $2.8 million treating people
whose skin had been scorched off by the toxic chemicals used
to make methamphetamine at home, says it now sees hardly any
cases of that sort. Drug treatment centers, on the other
hand, say they are treating just as many or more
And although child welfare
officials say they are removing fewer children from homes
where parents are cooking the drug, the number of children
being removed from homes where parents are using it has more
than made up the difference.
"It's killing us, this
Mexican ice," said Mr. Van Haaften, a former sheriff. "I'm
not sure we can control it as well as we can the meth labs
in your community."
The influx of the more potent
drug shows the fierce hold of methamphetamine, which has
devastated many towns once far removed from violent crime or
drugs. As Congress prepares to restrict the sale of
pseudoephedrine, the cold medicine ingredient that is used
to make methamphetamine, officials here and in other states
that have recently imposed similar restrictions caution that
they fall far short of a solution.
"You can't legislate away
demand," said Betty Oldenkamp, secretary of human services
in South Dakota, where the governor this month proposed
tightening a law that last year restricted customers to two
packs of pseudoephedrine per store. "The law enforcement
aspects are tremendously important, but we also have to do
something to address the demand."
Here, officials boast that
their law restricting pseudoephedrine, which took effect in
May, has been faster than any other state's in reducing
methamphetamine laboratories. Still, when Mr. Van Haaften,
director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy,
surveyed the local police, 74 percent said that the law had
not changed demand, and 61 percent said supply had remained
steady or increased.
In a survey of treatment
professionals, 92 percent said they had seen as many or more
methamphetamine addicts; the state treated 6,000 in 2005 and
expects to treat more than 7,000 this year, based on current
trends. Some health officials said abuse among women,
typically the biggest users of methamphetamine, was rising
While seizures of powdered
methamphetamine declined to 4,572 in 2005 from 6,488 in
2001, seizures of crystal methamphetamine increased, to
2,025 from one.
Federal drug agents tend to
describe ice as methamphetamine that is at least 90 percent
pure. Officials here say much of their crystal
methamphetamine is less pure - "dirty ice," they call it.
But either is far more potent than homemade powdered
methamphetamine; a "good cook" yields a drug that is about
42 percent pure, but around 25 percent is more common. And
in the first four months after the law took effect here,
average purity went to 80 percent from 47 percent.
Other states have seen the
"The Mexican drug cartels were right there to feed that
demand," said Tom Cunningham, the drug task force
coordinator for the district attorneys council for Oklahoma,
the first state to put pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy
counters, in 2004. "They have always supplied marijuana,
cocaine, and heroin. When we took away the local meth lab,
they simply added methamphetamine to the truck."
A methamphetamine cook could
make an ounce for $50 on a stovetop or in a lab in a car;
that same amount now costs $800 to $1,500 on the street, the
"Our burglaries have just
skyrocketed," said Jerry Furness, who represents Buchanan
County, 150 miles northeast of Des Moines, on the Iowa drug
task force. "The state asks how the decrease in meth labs
has reduced danger to citizens, and it has, as far as
potential explosions. But we've had a lot of burglaries
where the occupants are home at the time, and that's
probably more of a risk. So it's kind of evening out."
When the state surveyed the
children in state protection in southeastern Iowa four
months after the law took effect, it found that 49 percent
were taken from parents who had been using methamphetamine,
the same percentage as two years earlier, even as police
said they were removing fewer children from homes with
Some law enforcement
officials say that addicts may find the crystal form more
desirable. "If they don't have to mess with precursor
chemicals, it's actually a bit easier on them, and safer,"
said Kevin Glaser, a drug task force supervisor for the
state highway patrol in Missouri, which last year led the
nation in methamphetamine lab seizures.
But the switch has also
increased the risks. "People are overdosing; they're not
expecting it to do this much," said Darcy Jensen, director
of Prairie View Prevention Services in South Dakota. "They
don't realize that that fourth of a gram they're used to
using is double or triple in potency."
Federal officials say there
are 1.4 million methamphetamine addicts in the United
States, concentrated in the West, where the drug began to
take hold in the late 1980's, and the Midwest and South,
where it moved in the mid- and late 1990's.
Drug enforcement officials
have always said that 80 percent of the nation's supply
comes from so-called super labs, those able to make 10
pounds or more. But in some counties here, officials say
that all the methamphetamine came from mom-and-pop labs that
made the drug by cooking pseudoephedrine with toxic farm and
Law enforcement focused on
the laboratories because they were so destructive: the
police found children who had drunk lye thinking it was
water, or went without food as parents went through the long
binge-and-sleep cycles of using. Laboratories in homes,
motels, abandoned farm buildings or cars frequently
exploded, or dumped their toxic chemicals into drains or
soil. Small police departments spent much of their time
attending to contaminated sites.
More than 30 states have
restricted pseudoephedrine in some way. Nine have put it
behind pharmacy counters, and Oregon now requires a
prescription to obtain it.
Addicts and cookers have
proved to be skilled at getting around the restrictions; as
one state imposes a law, bordering states see an increase in
laboratories. Oklahoma recently linked its pharmacies by a
computer database to track sales after discovering that
cooks were going county-to-county buying from several
pharmacies a day.
Iowa's law passed
unanimously. As in other states, officials say the number of
laboratories had already begun to decline, most likely
because cooks feared they would be caught because there was
so much public attention on the problem.
The law resulted in a decline
of at least 80 percent. Police found 138 laboratories from
June to December, down from 673 for the same period the year
before. The state had hit a high of 1,500 lab busts in 2004,
but with the law, had 731 for 2005, and expects just 257
this year. Law enforcement says the costs of policing and
cleaning up labs will drop to $528,000 next year from $2.6
million in 2004.
But here and in many of the
states with recent pseudoephedrine restrictions, frustration
with the stubborn rate of addiction has moved the discussion
from enforcement to treatment and demand reduction.
That discussion, officials
say, will be much tougher.
After listening to Mr. Van Haaften's report on the effects
of the law this week, State Representative Clel Baudler, a
former state trooper who now heads the public safety
committee for the Iowa General Assembly, charged his
committee to come back to the next meeting with strategies
to reduce demand.
"My fear is, when I ask what
they think we should do, they'll say 'I don't know,' " Mr.
Baudler said in an interview afterward. "We've increased
penalties, we've increased prison time, we're still not
getting in front of it."
Officials say they never
advertised the law as one that would reduce methamphetamine
addiction. Still, they are surprised at how the drug has
"Things that are highly
destructive, including diseases, tend to be self-limiting,"
said Arthur Schut, president of the Mid-Eastern Council on
Chemical Abuse in Iowa City, and a member of the state's
drug policy advisory council. "This has been devastating.
It's remarkable how quickly people are damaged by it."
Mr. Van Haaften, too, knows
that it was too much to hope that the law would reduce
demand. Still, he says, "I had a little hope."
"I knew of the addictive
nature, but in my heart, I believed people didn't want to
deal with dealers," he said. "They have guns, it's
dangerous, if you make your own it's safer. I hoped for a
dip, but the availability did not allow that to happen."