In the shadows of the nationwide opioid crisis, another threat looms. Methamphetamine use is on the rise in small rural pockets of the country, from Oklahoma and Virginia, to Kentucky and Florida, and, as Rolling Stone reported in August, all the way up north in Alaska. The drug’s previous rise to prominence in the 1990s stemmed from the development of new synthesizing methods that allowed amateur chemists, armed with cold medicine and common household cleaning products, to “shake and bake” at home. It took a while, but 2006’s Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which limited over-the-counter access to cold medications containing necessary ingredients for synthesizing the drug, reduced domestic meth lab seizures to its lowest rate in 16 years. But the market for meth never went anywhere, it just got a new supplier. Nowadays, most of the country’s meth hails from Mexico, where “superlabs” run by drug cartels churn out a product that is purer and cheaper than ever — and there’s a hell of a lot more of it to go around.
These superlabs, largely operated by Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, are able to produce at an industrial scale, cooking up hundreds of pounds a day, and testing at 95 to 99 percent purity – what law enforcement calls “crystal” or “ice.”
“They came in with much purer, much cheaper meth and just flooded this region of the country,” DEA Agent Richard Salter told CNN about the impact being felt in Oklahoma, where fatal overdoses from the drug have doubled over the last five years.
As Rolling Stone first reported in August, Alaska saw meth-related overdoses quadruple between 2008 and 2016. Similarly, in Florida, according to the Department of Law Enforcement’s 2016 report, fatal meth overdoses were four times higher than they were just six years earlier. And in Southwest Virginia, according to a new report, within two years, meth seizures tripled, overtaking heroin as the second leading drug of choice (after marijuana).
The cartels are producing so much meth that they’ve broadened the scope of distribution beyond just those areas already ravaged by addiction, like the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, targeting new markets on the East Coast and the Southern United States. According to the US Border Patrol, meth seizures have multiplied tenfold over the last eight years, increasing from 8,900 pounds in 2010 to nearly 82,000 pounds so far in 2018. But a lot more is slipping through the cracks, trafficked across the border through California and Arizona — where seizures of meth are up 500 percent in the past decade — and making its way to distribution hubs like Atlanta, where it’s funneled into smaller, rural communities, often through established prison networks with connections to the formerly incarcerated.
With plenty to go around, meth is a lot cheaper too. In Oklahoma in 2012, an ounce of meth cost approximately $1,100, but now goes for $250 to $450. Law enforcement officials in Virginia, Ohio and Florida report a similar price drop. Illegal drugs are always sold at a premium in Alaska, and while the cartels continue to exploit the remote market’s lack of competition, meth is still cheaper now than it was the previous decade.
The rise in meth use hasn’t been accompanied by a decrease in opioid overdoses in these communities either — in Southern Virginia, for example, heroin seizures also went up during the same time period. Drug addiction experts fear the “euphoria” effect that meth is known for may be especially tempting to opiate addicts. While not as frequent as opiate overdoses, fatal meth overdoses frequently involve opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. And while meth is usually snorted or smoked, intravenous use — called “slamming” — has become more frequent, according to public health experts, another byproduct of the opioid crisis that significantly increases the risk of an overdose. And then there are those addicts who mix the two substances, a dangerous combination that makes opioid overdose drugs like Narcan utterly useless.
Just last week, the US Senate passed the “Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018,” which renews funding for treatment focused on opioids. But as meth use continues to rise in its shadows, aiding and abetting rising overdose and addiction rates, a single-pronged approach to the crisis won’t be enough.