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Crystal cartels alter face of U.S. meth epidemic

International gangs fill void after cops crack down on makeshift home labs

By Kari Huus, MSNBC, September 18, 2006

After years of raiding “redneck labs” and arresting local methamphetamine cooks, drug squads in Georgia appeared to be gaining the upper hand on the makeshift operations in 2004, when the number of busts declined sharply from a peak of more than 800 the previous year.

But the glow of success quickly faded as international drug cartels distributing a purer form of the drug known as "ice" rushed in to fill the void.

“The labs start to decline and you’re happy,” said Phil Price, special agent in charge of regional drug enforcement for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “But the imported meth has really hit us hard. ... It's cheaper now to buy it on the streets."

Price said the shift has made the drug so abundant that distributors now commonly "front" up to 2 pounds of ice to street dealers on credit. It also has turned the Atlanta area into a distribution hub for the East Coast, he said.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to go through what Miami went through with cocaine,” he said.

What is happening in Georgia is occurring in many other states, the unexpected result of a strong law enforcement push against home meth labs and new limits on the purchase of cold remedies used to make the drug. The state's dilemma also illustrates the difficulties of America’s battle with methamphetamine, which has addictive powers comparable to crack cocaine, but is in many ways harder to control.

Ingredients easy to obtain, tough to police
The so-called “precursor chemicals” used to make meth — pseudoephedrine and ephedrine —are inexpensive and widely available in common cold and allergy medications. That ubiquity makes it impossible for law enforcement to concentrate on specific regions or countries in an effort to choke off the supply.

Gary Lundgren“Unlike drugs derived from organic materials, such as cocaine or heroin, (methamphetamine) production is not limited to a specific geographic region,” Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in June.

Its effects also ensure a steady demand.

Once inhaled, injected or smoked, meth creates euphoria and energy that can last for several days. But the frenzied flights are followed by depression and exhaustion that drive the need for the next fix. Eventually, the relentless pursuit of meth drives many users out of their middle- and upper-class lives into a grim existence of crime, poverty and deteriorating health on the streets.

Crackdown on medication purchases
Alarmed by the spread of the drug across the United States from its initial foothold on the West Coast, many communities have passed ordinances to made it harder for home cooks to buy large quantities of cold and allergy medications.

Congress entered the fray by passing the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in March as part of the renewal of the anti-terror Patriot Act, placing restrictions on retail pseudoephedrine purchases across the nation.

The federal government also has stepped up support on the front lines, funding training for local law enforcement agencies to help them find and safely dismantle the highly toxic meth labs.

As a result, lab seizures nationwide peaked in 2003 at more than 17,000 and have declined by nearly a third, to around 12,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But the battle gets tougher as it shifts to the global theater.