When people think of methamphetamine, they think of the old-fashioned meth lab and they’re not aware of the dangerous, highly addictive meth that we’re dealing with now.
What’s known as methamphetamine, crystal meth, or meth has always been prevalent in America’s drug underworld, we just don’t hear about it as much in the mainstream media due to the opioid crisis being front and center on the nightly news. But in the 1990s, meth was public enemy number one. The rise of the Internet made recipes readily available for anyone who wanted to cook it up and reporters had a field day covering the resulting explosions in homes and mobile labs. Domestic production was especially prevalent in Missouri, which came to be known as the meth capital of the United States.
Very Pure and Relatively Cheap
But the meth scene that everyone had grown accustomed to slowly declined over the last 20 years, with explosions and arrests in Missouri dropping to almost none. At the same time, Mexican-based methamphetamine imports increased dramatically. Today, almost 90% of the methamphetamine in the United States comes from Mexican super labs and is primarily manufactured by the cartels. The biggest differences between domestic and foreign-made meth are the potency level, price point, and accessibility.
“It’s a lot like Breaking Bad,” Tim Lohmar, the St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney, tells The Fix. “And if you’re familiar with that show, you know that the purity of the methamphetamine and the ease of the mass production is what made it so addictive and relatively cheap. These Mexican labs are making a very pure methamphetamine. It’s almost night and day different than your old-fashioned basement meth lab sort of thing. They can mass produce the meth and distribute it at a reduced price, which consequently has led to a rise in local consumption.”
William Callahan, Special Agent-in-Charge of the DEA St. Louis Division, says that according to the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, “Methamphetamine sampled through the DEA profiling program is almost 97% pure, while prices remain low and stable.” There are still some of the small shake-and-bake style labs across the state, but the vast majority of the methamphetamines coming into Missouri are from south of the border.
Psychosis and Overdoses on the Rise
The new improved drug contributed to almost 30 deaths last year, a jump from 7 the year before. Overdoses are on the rise.
“It’s a lot stronger, so we’re seeing a lot more psychosis, but we’re also seeing it being tainted with fentanyl, which is leading to more deaths.” Brandon Costerison, project manager of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA) in St. Louis, tells The Fix. “They’re making speedballs, like people used to do with cocaine and heroin in the ‘80s.”
Lohmar thinks that most of the overdoses, especially ones that result in death, occur when people combine meth with something else like fentanyl or heroin. “A lot of the local suppliers will try to break down the methamphetamine, the pure methamphetamine, and put a filler in there,” he says. “And the person who’s ingesting it doesn’t even know what they’re ingesting, and that’s how we get a lot of these overdose situations.”
With opioids killing people at an unprecedented rate, meth has been viewed as less risky and lower priority… Until recently.
“Methamphetamine takes years, typically, to kill someone, whereas opioids can kill you the first time.” Costerison says. “When we’re looking at death tolls, opioids by far are leading, but we do see a lot of people dying either directly from methamphetamines or from complications associated with methamphetamine use.”
Lohmar says that while we still have an opioid crisis, he thinks “it’s starting to plateau a little bit. I don’t know that the overdoses are decreasing, but I don’t think they’re increasing at the same rate they have been over the last handful of years. Seven, eight years ago, very few people knew about the opioid crisis, and nowadays everybody knows about it. Meanwhile, I think, when people think of methamphetamine, they think of the old-fashioned meth lab and they’re not aware of the dangerous, highly addictive meth that we’re dealing with now.”
Despite the opioid epidemic taking center stage, “Meth has never flown under the radar at DEA.” Callahan tells The Fix. “Our agents work relentlessly to identify those involved in meth distribution domestically and internationally. Meth may not kill as many people; however continuous meth use does result in significant health issues.”
Obstacles in Treating Methamphetamine Addiction
Adults are using more meth than young people. “Folks tend to get into [meth] after the age of 18, though some do start using earlier,” Costerison says. “The biggest struggle with methamphetamine is that there’s not really any medications that help with the treatment. With opioids, we have methadone, Suboxone, Vivitrol. But when it comes to treating methamphetamine addiction there’s really no medication to help with the withdrawals and cravings.” The lack of medication-assisted treatment is a major obstacle for Missouri health officials who try to get people into long-term recovery.
“There’s a lot of different things that we see when somebody starts withdrawing.” Costerison says. “At first, there’s the itchiness, irritability, and cravings. [Then] there’s depression, hallucinations, paranoia, and anxiety. After that [initial] crash, the cravings really kick up. But in the third stage the cravings start to subside. That can last 30 weeks or longer, depending on how much somebody’s been using.”
The meth market has also been impacted by the legalization of marijuana, which has meant less income for the cartels. “The cartels were the major suppliers and producers of marijuana, historically, over the last 30-40 years,” Lohmar says. “And now that a lot of states have legalized marijuana, whether it’s recreational or medicinal, that’s cut into their market. That’s when they turned to heroin first, and now they’re turning to crystal methamphetamine. They’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the game.”
The cartels can get the precursor ingredients for meth easily in Mexico and set up big super labs, allowing them to make a very high-potency, pure methamphetamine à la Walter White. With meth flooding Missouri, local law enforcement has ramped up their efforts to stop the flow. But since the distributors typically reside out of state, a lot of local efforts to climb the food chain end up turning into federal investigations.
“Identifying meth suppliers has always been a top priority for the Drug Enforcement Administration.” Callahan tells The Fix. “We work closely with local and state law enforcement to identify violators and interdict drugs before they hit the street for retail sales. [We conduct] a thorough investigation aimed at dismantling the entire organization, including everyone from the kingpin to the money launderers, transporters, and dealers. The DEA also investigates the diversion of chemicals intended for the use of producing meth.”
At the state level, “the goal is to try and find a small-time user and get them to supply information to move up the food chain and get the big players in the distribution networks,” Lohmar says. “We’ve got our undercover drug task force. We’ve got our highway interdiction team to intercept the traffickers coming through the state via the interstate highways. We’ve got a really good working relationship not just with the DEA, but with the U.S. Attorney’s office. There’s been a much bigger emphasis on meth, just because there’s a lot more out there.”
Treating Addiction as a Health Issue, Not a Crime
But as the drug war has proved unwinnable, authorities are starting to look at the problems here in Missouri as more of a health issue instead of a criminal one, at least in the lower echelons of the drug trade. As methamphetamine has moved out of the trailer parks and into the suburbs and inner cities, there has been a substantial increase of meth users entering treatment facilities. Lohmar says that locally, most of St. Charles County’s attention is spent dealing with the consumers rather than the distributors.
“Our position now, really, across the board, but especially with somebody who’s an addict, is that we want to give them every opportunity to stay out of jail,” Lohmar says. “And sometimes they don’t take advantage of those opportunities, but the ones who do, I think, those are some good success stories. I think that’s a positive breakthrough.”
Lohman says that the drug war era of harsh mandatory sentences is being replaced with a more humane view of drug addiction.
“I’ve been in office for seven years and ever since I’ve been here and probably even a little bit before that, we’re looking at it more as an addiction issue as opposed to a criminal problem. Now, obviously, it’s a crime, but we also know that a lot of these folks who are addicted wouldn’t be committing crimes had it not been for their addictions.
“We’re trying to use things like the treatment courts as alternative sentences, or alternative programs,” he says. “We’re giving people the chance to complete the program, and if they do, in some cases their charges are dismissed, or in other cases they don’t spend a day in jail, or things like that. So, we try to incentivize the treatments to give them a chance to improve their lives, and it’s been pretty successful.”