FEDS SCORE AGAINST HOMEGROWN METH
Data Show Curbs Working on Making, Not Necessarily Use, of Drug in USA
Small, toxic methamphetamine labs that overwhelmed rural and suburban communities in the past several years are disappearing as ingredients to make the drug become more difficult to find, federal law enforcement agents say.
New statistics released by the Drug Enforcement Administration ( DEA ) show a 58% drop in meth labs and abandoned sites seized last year by police and U.S. agents, to 7,347. That indicator peaked nationwide in 2003, with 17,356 sites seized.
The DEA credits the decline to state and federal laws that restrict the sale of cold medicines and chemicals used to make methamphetamine and to increased law enforcement, spokesman Rusty Payne says.
"This is one time where the laws worked, and they worked quickly," DEA Senior Special Agent Philippa LeVine says.
Problems with meth remain. The percentage of U.S. residents known to have used meth in their lifetimes dropped only slightly from 4.9% in 2004 to 4.3% in 2005, the latest year figures are available from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The rates of those saying they used meth in the past month or past year did not change. About 512,000 people use meth regularly.
Methamphetamine, often called meth, is a highly addictive stimulant that can be made from medicines containing pseudoephedrine and household chemicals. It sells for $10 to $20 a dose, the DEA says. It is usually smoked or injected.
Nationwide, small meth labs produced only 20% of the meth supply, even at their peak, the DEA says. The bulk is created in large, professional-style labs and smuggled into the country from Mexico and Canada. The DEA estimates that 80% to 90% of the meth in the USA is imported. "We know that meth is coming from Mexico in significant amounts," Payne says.
In a 2005 survey of law enforcement agents in 500 communities, police overwhelmingly identified methamphetamine as their biggest illegal drug problem, surpassing cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Agencies in 70% of counties surveyed said meth was driving up crimes such as robbery.
More than 40 states have enacted laws to drive out the labs, including restricting access to the ingredients used to make meth. Illinois, Tennessee, Minnesota, Montana and several other states created searchable Internet databases of addresses linked to meth manufacturers, dealers and traffickers.
Last year, Congress passed the Combat Meth Act that requires retail stores to keep medicines containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine behind the counter and requires customers to show ID when buying them. The law also limits how much cold medicine a customer can buy per day. The DEA created a national registry of meth manufacturers, dealers and traffickers in November.
Meth emerged in California in the 1980s and quickly spread east, gaining traction in the Midwest. Meth makers set up rudimentary labs - -- purchasing cartons of cold medicine and stealing fertilizer from farms -- to concoct small batches for sale and personal use from recipes found on the Internet.
The labs generate toxic waste that cost communities thousands of dollars to clean up. The volatile chemicals used to make meth occasionally explode, causing dangerous chemical fires.
"The burden that these sites had put on the community has been reduced," says John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "These were toxic sites that exposed children, first responders, neighbors who weren't even aware this was going on."
In Judge Seth Norman's courtroom in Nashville, criminals addicted to meth get two options for serving their sentence: jail or rehab. There's a long waiting list for rehab.
"We're always full up. There's no room at the inn," says Norman, who presides over the Davidson County drug court and directs a court-run drug treatment center with a program specifically for meth addicts.
Tennessee, like other states, has seen a drastic decrease in the amateur meth labs tucked away in backyards, motel rooms, garages and shacks after laws restricted the sale of chemicals to make the drug.
The meth addicts, however, have not gone away. "We have not seen a drop in the use of meth," Norman says. "It's coming in from other sources."
Some drug experts say the decline in homegrown meth labs may be the first sign that meth is becoming less popular. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2006 saw a decrease in meth-related problems for the first time since it emerged as a serious issue in 2000, says Carol Falkowski of the Hazelden drug treatment facility in Center City, Minn.
Two years ago, Minnesota began restricting sales of cold medicines. The year before, police seized 212 meth labs in the state. In 2006, the number of seized labs plunged to 59 -- a 72% reduction. Meth-related emergency room visits in Minnesota fell by two-thirds to 480, Falkowski said.
In the same period, felony prosecutions for meth-related crimes dropped 21% to 307 in 2006 in Dakota County, a Twin Cities suburb, says County Attorney James Backstrom. "Meth has been an enormous problem in our community over the last five years."
The number of meth-related charges in 2006 decreased for the first time in a decade, he says. Backstrom attributes the reduced crime to the curb on meth-making ingredients. "We hope it's a sign that this terrible epidemic is starting to ebb in our community," he says.
Backstrom says methamphetamine continues to be the county's top illegal drug problem, and meth-related crimes still make up 30% of the court cases. "There's still a significant amount of meth around," he says.
In Atlanta, "we've had a significant increase in the meth coming in from Mexico. It was less a couple of years ago," says Brian Dew, assistant professor at Georgia State University and the state's representative to a group of drug addiction experts who analyze local drug trends for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It's just replaced the local lab productions."