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The New Face of Meth in America

09/18/2007 -During a hearing on Capitol Hill today,law enforcement officials and drug abuse experts testifiedon the enduring epidemic of American methamphetamine use and the shift in its production from the United States to abroad.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that has ravaged the United States, especially the heartland and more rural regions. In the state of Montana, 50 percent of inmates and 50 percent of foster-case admissions were attributable to meth.

While the problem used to be a glut of "mom-and-pop" meth labs, it is now the smuggling of meth across borders, primarily from Mexico. There, "superlabs," which produce 10 tons or more of the drug in one production cycle, fill the gap in demand the closure of the mom-and-pop labs left behind.

"[A]n estimated 80 percent of meth consumed in the United States originates in Mexico,"said Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance.

The United States looks to be a victim of its own success.

The Combat Meth Act of 2005, enacted in March 2006, helped cut the amount of meth lab seizures by 42 percent, showing lawmakers and law enforcement officials that the law was curbing domestic production. The act restricts the sale of chemicals necessary for the production of meth such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine or PSE. Also, pharmacies must now place these ingredients behind their counters while purchasers must show a photo ID and sign a log book to buy these products.

"[T]he Combat Meth Act has become a national standard for the retail availability of methamphetamine precursors,"said Peter Wolfgram, a representative of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS).

But where there's a market, there's a way.

Some domestic cookers of meth now "smurf" to get enough of the precursors to cook up batches of meth. Smurfing is when a person goes from store to store buying up the precursors at, or less than, the legal limit set by the Combat Meth Act.

Because most of the logbooks are paper, law enforcement has trouble reviewing and analyzing them,says Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Diversion Control at the DEA.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) aims to close the smurfing loophole by establishing an electronic logbook system that would identify smurfers to law enforcement.

But the real challenge is interdiction of foreign supplies smuggled across national and state boundaries.

One way to reduce the amount of meth in America is to control the drug's precursors internationally. Progress has been encouraging.

Mexico has reevaluated its national needs for PSE and ephedrine and reduced their import quotas accordingly, says Rannazzisi. For 2006, Mexico projects that PSE imports would weigh in at 70 metric tons. This year, Mexico projects PSE imports of 40 metric tons. And in 2008, Mexico has set its PSE import quota at zero.

Both the DEA and theState Department have created a host of multilateral and international programsto target, identify, and seize suspicious shipments of meth precursors. And in March 2006, a U.S. resolution to control precursor chemicals was passed by consensus at the 49th U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS' largest investigatory agency, alsoplays a role in the interdiction of meth smugglers since the most popular way to smuggle meth into the country is in concealed compartments in passenger vehicles. The two biggest ports of entry for meth is San Diego, California, and Nogales, Arizona. In San Diego alone, ICE seized 2,131 pounds of meth, while the agency confiscated 688 pounds at the Nogales port of entry.

Thomas M. Siebel, chairman and founder of theMeth Project, spoke about combatting meth on the demand side. His organization seeks to reduce first-time meth use through public service messaging, public policy, and community outreach. In Montana, the organization saturated the marketplace with its prevention campaign, using "Not Even Once" as its core message.

The campaign's results have been inspiring.

Montana, which used to rank fifth in the nation in meth abuse, now ranks 39th. Meth-related crimes have declined by 53 percent and adult use has dropped by as much as 70 percent.

"We believe that the Meth Project results in Montana have been more significant than any drug prevention program in history," said Siebel.

The Meth Project is currently operating in Arizona, Idaho, and Illinois, and is asking Congress for an additional $40 million to extend the project to a total of ten states.