New worries about meth trends
After a decline in the number of labs in the US, amounts of the addictive drug have gone up.
After a dramatic decline over several years, the availability of methamphetamine – a highly addictive stimulant "cooked" with chemicals from over-the-counter cold medications – began to creep up in 2008.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The reversal, reported by the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), worries law enforcement agencies. They've poured resources into treating an epidemic that crossed the country in recent years. Over 17,000 methamphetamine labs were discovered in 2004, tucked inside homes, barns, and vehicles. Among the dangerous byproducts: toxic waste, explosions, theft, and other crimes to support addiction.
"It's everywhere from soccer moms to someone who just got out of prison," says Sgt. Gary Higginbotham of the Jefferson County, Mo., sheriff's department, which led the nation in lab busts for the past several years.
In 2005, Congress passed restrictions on key ingredients ephedrine and pseudoephedrine found in cold and allergy medicines. It helped: during 2007, agents found just 5,910 labs. That year, Mexico banned all imports containing either chemical in an effort to curb exports by large-scale traffickers. The move helped create methamphetamine shortages in many parts of the country during 2007 and the first part of 2008, the NDIC states in its December report.
But several indicators suggest that since then, domestic production has increased to fill the void. Authorities say more small-time cooks are sidestepping federal regulations to obtain what they need to manufacture the drug.
The per-gram price of pure methamphetamine fell more than 30 percent, from $267.74 to $184.09, between the last quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of this year, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Lab seizures also quickened in many areas. In Michigan, for example, 127 sites were raided between January and July of 2008 after 101 of them turned up in all of 2007.
"Restrictions did their job for a while, but [methamphetamine producers] found a way to get around them," said Abraham Azzam, executive director of Michigan's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that coordinates drug enforcement. "What we're seeing is a proliferation."
As a result of the federal restrictions passed in 2005, there are daily and monthly limits on how many grams of ephedrine-based products may be purchased. Employees check customers' identification and log the amounts into a store or chain-wide database to ensure compliance.
That law is now commonly bypassed through a technique called "smurfing." Small groups who know two or three cooks will travel from store to store, buying the maximum allowable amount of ingredients. Then they trade medications for finished methamphetamine or cash.