The Meth Effects
The rise and spread of methamphetamine (meth) use in the United States over the last two decades can be compared to a prairie fire — it moves with lightning speed and destroys everything in its path. The drug is particularly dangerous because it is extremely addictive and easily produced. And, half of all meth seized by law enforcement is produced by clandestine laboratories hidden in rural areas, where few public safety resources are available.
With traditional drugs, arresting and prosecuting dealers and producers is clear-cut and ties up relatively few public resources. “You go under cover, buy drugs, make the arrest, go to court, the jury finds the suspect guilty and you go home,” says Michael Heald, executive assistant to the deputy chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). When a meth lab is seized, the seizure involves many county agencies, including local law enforcement, the courts, child protective services, local health care providers, hospitals, the fire department and environmental engineers to clean up the toxic waste at the lab site.
“A person producing a relatively small amount can shut the entire county down for up to 24 hours,” Heald says. During that time, emergency 911 calls are not effective because most of the first responder resources are dealing with the seizure.
Labs often are discovered when a sheriff’s deputy goes on a domestic call. When a lab is identified, the deputy contacts a state agent who alerts the DEA. “Once we start to see a problem, we interact with the Sheriff’s Department and the state. Once the law enforcement agencies come together, they reach out to the other components [such as the Fire Department],” Heald says. Firefighters are needed because of the explosions commonly caused by meth production. Responders must be trained to protect themselves from the harmful chemicals. Finally, if children are present, child protective services is brought in. “[The meth epidemic] is everyone’s problem, and we’re going to have to recognize we can’t do it alone,” Heald says.
In 2001, according to the Lexington, Ky.-based Council of State Governments (CSG), at least 9.6 million Americans had tried meth once. All that is needed to cook a batch is a heat source and ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (ingredients in cold medicine) and a combination of other chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid and red phosphorus. Pseudoephedrine can be purchased at local retail stores, and red phosphorus can be acquired easily through road flares or matches.
Another process, called the “Nazi” method, adds anhydrous ammonia, which comes from farm supply stores or is stolen from tanks on farms. It also calls for lithium, a metal extracted from lithium batteries. It is easy to make, and all of the ingredients can be purchased inexpensively from local discount stores.
Last year, approximately 18,000 meth labs and dump sites were seized across the country compared to only 327 in 1995. The sites were predominantly small labs capable of cooking less than 10 pounds of meth per cycle. While “super labs,” which are capable of producing mass quantities, have been on the decline in the past two years, small labs run by a few people or those addicted to the drug are popping up across the nation like dandelions.
To combat the rapid growth, the DEA is working with state and local governments to educate them and develop local programs, Heald says. The DEA trains local law enforcement in areas such as leadership, intelligence and drug law enforcement. The DEA also manages a $20 million program that pays for the initial site clean up, evidence gathering and chemical removal.
The remainder of the site clean up costs — ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 each — however, fall to counties and sometimes the property owners of the lab sites. Heald recalls uncovering a meth lab site in Livermore, Calif., an area where horse ranches are prevalent. Because the lab had a pit to dispose of the toxic waste from production, Alameda County health officials were forced to test the water for a year after the lab’s closure to ensure that none of the materials had leached into the groundwater.
Counties respond to epidemic
Blue Earth County, Minn., is fighting to understand and get control of the meth epidemic. In 2000, Blue Earth County law enforcement seized two meth labs. By 2002, there were 20 seizures; and in 2003, 25 labs were seized in the first six months. In addition, up to 60 percent of inmates in the county jail are there for drug or alcohol-related crimes. The choice for Blue Earth County officials was clear: either build a bigger jail or come up with a method to prevent the spread of meth.
Colleen Landkamer, county commission chairman and first vice president of the National Association of Counties (NACo), says her community made the decision to fight the drug invasion through the criminal justice system. “When you looked at all of the pieces of the criminal justice system, they all did their own thing and there was not a lot of interaction. A few years ago, we decided we were literally going to focus on the criminal justice system and find different ways to make it work interdependently.” The cooperation of the judicial entities culminated in a drug court.
There now are more than 1,500 drug courts across the country that are either in the operational or planning stages (see map above). The special courts coordinate the efforts of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, law enforcement, social services, probation and the treatment community. They all work together to quickly identify and intervene on behalf of certain non-violent drug or alcohol offenders. The goal is to break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction and crime. Once an offender is placed in a drug court, he or she receives intensive monitoring, including frequent drug testing and long-term treatment. Drug courts also work with participants in areas such as job training, family counseling and education.
Landkamer says Blue Earth County brought together all of the stakeholders to discuss the problem. The ideas that came from their meetings were then institutionalized. Officials also have changed job descriptions to match the new services. The county has allocated $225,000 from state and federal grants and a county property tax to create two full-time drug court agent positions and to pay for drug testing and treatment for defendants not covered through existing insurance or public assistance. The county’s court will be up and running this year.
For counties, drug court services can pay for themselves. A study conducted by the California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment, for instance, estimates that outpatient treatment is $8 per day compared to incarceration costs of $86 a day. A night in Blue Earth County’s jail costs taxpayers $52. Landkamer says, “You pay for it now, or you pay for it later.”
Madera County, Calif., a rural community with 120,000 residents, also is focusing on treatment. “Ninety percent of all the cases that come through the county’s social services department are meth-related,” says Hub Walsh, director of Madera County Social Services. Treatment programs in the past have required drug offenders to report in perhaps once a week, Walsh says. Madera County is instituting an outpatient meth drug treatment program called “Matrix” that requires participants to report either daily or every other day. “It’s a multi-disciplinary approach including alcohol and drug treatment, mental health clinicians and social workers because of the nature and the impact on families. If we don’t deal with it now, children will end up in foster care, and families will be destroyed,” Walsh says.
The Matrix program has been under discussion for six months and will be instituted in the first quarter of 2005. It is based on a similar program in San Diego where Madera County employees have been trained. Workers in the San Diego program also are being brought in to help Madera County get its meth treatment program up and running. Instead of adding taxes or applying for grants, Madera is shifting existing funds from its child welfare, alcohol and drug, and mental health departments to pay for the program.
“The spread of meth has been compared to the crack epidemic. It’s nastier because of the destruction and the danger spread to the environment and the family,” says Pilar Kramer, research analyst for CSG and author of the study, “Drug Abuse in America — Rural Meth.” A 2003 report issued by the National Drug Intelligence Center shows that 31 percent of all state and local law enforcement agencies consider meth to be their primary drug threat. To prevent the spread, states have several options, Kramer says. States can limit access to ingredients, train law enforcement, raise public awareness and target young people through drug prevention programs.
While Illinois made it a misdemeanor to tamper with farm storage tanks containing anhydrous ammonia, other states, such as Iowa, have dealt with the problem more directly by distributing locks to farmers. “People are haphazardly transferring ammonia from the farm tanks to items like fire extinguishers. If any leaks into the environment, it’s very hazardous,” Kramer says. New York recently signed a law to study chemicals that would make the anhydrous ammonia found in fertilizer useless in meth production, Kramer says.
Other states are following Kansas’ lead in policing the distribution of ingredients. In 2001, Kansas developed a program called Meth Watch, a public-private partnership between law enforcement, state officials and retailers designed to help curtail the suspicious sale and theft of common household products used in the illicit manufacturing of meth. Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington all have followed suit. Missouri requires stores to keep cold medicine, such as pseudoephedrine or Sudafed, behind the counter and limit the amount that can be purchased by a single customer. This past December, a new version of Sudafed was formulated without pseudoephedrine to help curb meth production. State and local law enforcement officials, however, are skeptical that the change will have any impact because the original version will still be available.
Education and public awareness are critical because meth effects the whole community. “An educated public that knows the effects of meth are more likely to report neighbors,” Kramer says. The drug can impact a wide range of people. From the garbage collector who might pick up some of the toxic materials to the educator who teaches a child wearing clothing contaminated from a meth lab in the home, almost no one is immune.
The latest numbers of meth lab seizures show an overall rise across the board but are heartening in some small measure because the hardest hit states — California and Mississippi — have had modest declines over the past year. Nationwide seizures have hovered around 8,500 to 9,100 since 2001. States that have yet to be infected will likely add to those numbers in the future.
Innovative methods to deal with the meth epidemic continue to be developed by state and local governments. The meth addiction is a very powerful one, and officials and communities will have to be vigilant. As pressure has increased on drug houses, desperate meth producers — addicts — have taken to creating rolling labs in their personal automobiles, making an already dangerous situation even more lethal.
Meth can be injected, smoked, snorted or taken orally.
Meth is also called “crank,” “ice” and “poor man’s cocaine.”
A batch of meth costs about $100 to make but can be sold for approximately $1,000.
|SOURCE: Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Drug Control Policy Update 2003|