In a vast avocado field in San Diego County, Calif., lush trees topped with sloping canopies of dense leaves stand in rows. As a fruit crop, avocados require relatively little maintenance. But this quiet field drew a flurry of attention one day last June.
Wearing hooded "sterile suits" with shoe coverings - garb more common in microchip plants - drug-enforcement officers parted a wall of drooping leaves. What they found was a 22-liter chemical-reaction vessel in which ephedrine, a chemical used to make nasal decongestants, was being converted to methamphetamine - the current American "drug of choice." Street price: about $14,000 a pound.
Such laboratories, easily set up with the most basic equipment, are part of a growing international network specializing in diverting legal but controlled chemicals from regular shipping routes to produce illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines.
Known as the "poor man's cocaine," methamphetamine is a highly toxic stimulant rapidly rising in popularity in the US.
With the exception of marijuana, all illegal drugs require a principal chemical input, or "precursor" for their manufacture. Typically, such precursors are compounds with common industrial or pharmaceutical uses.
In the case of cocaine, for example, coca leaves must be mixed with sulfuric acid, the main ingredient in household cleaning products, and with acetone, a solvent used in paint thinner. Producing heroin requires morphine, itself a legal drug, to be mixed with aceticanhydride, a chemical used in making plastics.
A total of 22 chemicals are recognized by international drug-control authorities as potential illegal-drug precursors. An additional 11 other chemicals, weaker agents or solvents, also are known to be used in the manufacture of illegal drugs.
While "precursor diversion" is a growing phenomenon worldwide, the US has become the most frequent end-point of such trafficking schemes. Fueling a rapidly growing demand for methamphetamines, the diversion of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine (a more concentrated version of ephedrine) into the US is "absolutely a huge problem," according to William Wolf, chief of chemical operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
"Methamphetamine is so outrageous a drug ... it's going to affect all of the subpopulations," said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, earlier this year. "It's going to be a great tool to make America again drug-dazed and stoned." There have also been isolated cases of well-known pharmaceutical products like Benadril and Alka-Seltzer being used in making methamphetamines. "While we are not a significant and measurable part of the problem, we don't want to become a part of the problem," says Frank Rathbun of the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association in Washington.
Hospital admissions from overdoses of methamphetamines have increased as much as 2,000 percent over the last 10 years - twice the rate of cocaine - according to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy. And methamphetamine-related deaths have doubled nationwide in the past four years.
Tough to track
With the illegal diversions of precursors seen as primarily responsible for the drug's rising popularity, the US response has been swift. The DEA has recently incorporated the monitoring of precursor chemicals into the US as part of drug-control strategy.
Last September, the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 was passed, tightening controls of the sale of precursor chemicals to individuals and to companies, and increasing penalties for illegal sale.
The rise in precursor diversions was highlighted in a recent annual report of the UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a Vienna-based body that monitors worldwide drug trafficking trends. Between 1993 and 1996, international seizures of diverted legal chemicals for illegal drug manufacture have jumped 60 percent. The report made special mention of ephedrine diversions into the US, noting that in the same period diversion seizures by DEA officials increased twentyfold.
"Precursor diversions have been a problem since the '60s," says Herbert Okun, an official at the INCB. "But only in recent years has it gotten so bad as we are seeing today."
Such illegal diversions have thrived as the drug trade itself has grown. Clandestine laboratories can be set up just about anywhere. And the trade can take advantage of differences between countries in how they control the narcotics industry. Diverting chemicals is also profitable.
Anatomy of a heist
A typical case might involve a pharmaceutical plant in the US that needs a metric ton of ephedrine for the manufacture of a nasal decongestant product. The ephedrine would likely be ordered from India, China, or Czech Republic, its largest producers.
According to the 1988 Vienna Drug Convention, the international treaty monitoring narcotics trafficking to which 137 countries have signed, international authorities must be told the shipping route of such ephedrine.
But international narcotics monitoring is inconsistent; and some 54 countries have not ratified the convention, making precursor shipments easily disguised and rerouted. Very often, diversions occur as chemical shipments pass through such major transfer points such as Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Diversion "brokers," either organized crime or quasi-legitimate shipping agents, then steal and disguise chemicals, or bribe customs officials to look the other way.
In the hypothetical case, the diverted ephedrine would then be routed to clandestine labs in Europe or the US to be made into methamphetamine tablets. For US consumption, the ephedrine is most often shipped to Mexico and then smuggled up into southern California through Mexican organized-crime cartels."
Signs of progress
Despite the shortcomings of worldwide drug-enforcement measures, INCB pressures on national governments to impose stricter monitoring appears to be paying off. In 1996, a total of 250 metric tons were seized by national authorities, primarily in Western Europe - more than the total amount seized worldwide between 1993 and 1996.
The US remains the most active of any country in precursor monitoring, spending close to $20 million a year. The main enforcement has been aimed at the national rings that shuttle methamphetamine across the US.
One major case in 1994 involved a Springdale, Ark., gas-and-grocery stop called "Mister G," which ran a multimillion ephedrine-tablet manufacture and distribution network. A similar outlet, Valley Run in Milroy, Pa., was the site of a 22-metric ton ephedrine seizure in May 1995.
The methamphetamine production taking place in an on-site lab at the time of the Pennsylvania arrest was so big that five tractor-trailers were required to haul away the drugs.
Other controls introduced by the US include a cap on the amount of precursors that can be purchased by industries before having to register the transaction with US authorities. Criminal penalties have also been stiffened, doubling the maximum penalty for illegal possession to 20 years.
No US industrial or pharmaceuticals company has been singled out for investigation for illegal trafficking by US drug officials, according to the DEA. The INCB, however, reports that one "major, multinational" company's Latin America operations are being investigated for precursor diversion.
Methamphetamine demand remains high, and the regulatory controls still have to be ironed out," says Mr. Wolf. "But in terms of law enforcement in stopping diversions, we have seen dramatic successes. We're on to how those networks work, and it's only going to get worse for them."