Long considered a drug mostly used in poorer backwaters, methamphetamine availability and use has exploded in the United States in the last few years in places where it had never been consumed in any large amounts, marking a dramatic shift. In this, the first in a three-part series (read chapters two and three) on changing drug consumption patterns in the region and its impact on criminal dynamics, InSight Crime explores how methamphetamine became the drug of choice in the United States.
As the pills piled up, Jon DeLena was shaken. He’d lived through a spike in cocaine trafficking in Miami in the early 2000s and the dramatic rise in heroin and fentanyl use in New England in more recent years -- the one that had left thousands dead because of overdoses.
But the veteran Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in charge of the New England Field Office had never seen such a stark uptick as what he was seeing with methamphetamine use, and its ingenious delivery method: fake Adderall pills. These were piling up in seizures across a region that had not been known to have a significant methamphetamine-consuming population.
So, he sounded the alarm.
“The fear is that this heroin epidemic will look like the minor leagues compared to this, if crystal methamphetamine explodes the way that we think it is,” he told the Substance Use Disorder Collaborative in New Hampshire in January.
In February, he launched Operation Engage Manchester, designed to partner with local community organizations and stakeholders to get the word out about both the synthetic opioid fentanyl and methamphetamine in one of the traditional centers of fentanyl consumption in the region.
And in March, he took to the airwaves, holding a press conference that was covered by local television.
“We’re seeing these pills,” he said, pointing to the replica Adderall on a table in front of him. “They’re showing up all over New England but specifically here in New Hampshire. In all four corners of the state, we’re seizing these pills. And they’re deadly, and we need to get the message out there.”
It may be too late. The pills, while still concentrated in areas like New England and representing just a small percentage of methamphetamine consumption, are eerily reminiscent of how fentanyl exploded through the region, tearing through communities in the form of an array of falsified pharmaceuticals.
They are also part of a trendline that shows no signs of slowing. Based on a range of data, as well as more than a dozen interviews with US law enforcement and experts, it is clear the United States has become the methamphetamine consumption capital of the world.
It’s not even close: 50 percent of the record global seizures of the drug in 2018 were in North America. The US market for the drug, which was worth $13 billion in 2010, may now be worth at least four times that much, according to a 2019 RAND Corporation study.
“The United States’ methamphetamine problem has been brewing, but we dropped the ball and took our eyes off it as a lot of the money, law enforcement and healthcare pivoted to opioids,” said Bryce Pardo, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “Methamphetamine overdoses aren’t as deadly and not as many people die as from opioids, which drew way more of the attention.”
Exact figures on drug use are difficult to obtain, experts say, since surveys of consumers belie the use of stigmatized drugs like methamphetamine. The drug is also heavily used in poorly surveyed rural areas.
The US Department of Health and Human Services counted about two million people who took methamphetamine in 2019, roughly the same number as in 2015. RAND, however, estimated more than three million methamphetamine users in 2016, a 50 percent increase since 2006.
Cocaine use, meanwhile, appears to have declined in recent years. RAND estimated there were just over two million cocaine users in 2016, down from nearly four million in 2006.
And its survey tallied over two million heroin users, up about 30 percent since 2006, but still far below the number of methamphetamine users.
The transformation has been steady with a combination of factors contributing to it, among them the dwindling use of cocaine, the rise in synthetic drug use and the ingenuity of the Mexican criminal organizations who now mass-produce methamphetamine using a variety of chemical precursors that are difficult to control.
These days, the United States is consistently seizing more methamphetamine along its southwest border with Mexico than any other drug except for marijuana, which is moved in bulk quantities and is far less potent than methamphetamine. Methamphetamine seizures have risen sevenfold in the last eight years, according to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics that have been cited by the DEA.
In the United States, methamphetamine samples sent by agents for forensic analysis -- another proxy of overall prevalence -- represent about one quarter of all samples and went up 75 percent between the years 2014 and 2019, the DEA reported in its most recent threat assessment.
Methamphetamine is being produced in laboratories and “super labs” in Mexico, US law enforcement agents say, where quality has kept pace with quantity. Potency and purity of the methamphetamine seized in the United States averages more than 97 percent, an uptick from the already high-quality product of five years ago, which was closer to 90 percent potency and 96 percent purity. Potency refers to the dosage needed to affect a person, while purity is the amount of drug in a given sample.
“Methamphetamine purity and potency has only gotten better. Mexican drug trafficking groups are sourcing largely industrial grade precursors from China or India and working in mega-labs or clandestine labs that allow them to produce much better product,” Pardo told InSight Crime.
These organizations have also diversified their precursor chemical use, shifting among suppliers and chemicals to keep authorities off balance. The criminal groups produce most of the methamphetamine using what is known as phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. There are two main methods to produce P2P, and the criminal groups have oscillated between them, investigators say.
It’s also unclear where these groups are getting the chemicals to make P2P. The most recent seizure data from 2018 from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) cited China as the source of some of the largest recent seizures of precursors, and Mexico as the place where the largest seizures took place. The DEA's 2020 Drug Threat Assessment also cited China and India as sources for precursors, but counterdrug officials contacted by InSight Crime said the chemicals were coming from many other places as well, including Germany.
A Wide Array of Criminal Actors
The Mexican criminal groups most often mentioned as dominating the methamphetamine trade are the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación -- CJNG), but there are a number of other criminal organizations with increasingly sophisticated labs and transport capabilities, US counterdrug authorities and experts say.
These criminal organizations go by a plethora of sometimes dynamic monikers. They include the Guerreros Unidos and Rojos (both formerly under the banner of the Beltrán Leyva Organization), the Cartel del Norte (formerly the Zetas), and the Juárez Cartel and La Línea (the latter having split off from the Juárez Cartel). However, counterdrug officials and experts say these groups may be as much brand names as criminal organizations allowing for varying degrees of independence at the base level, especially with the barriers of entry becoming lower.
To be sure, the explosion of methamphetamine production suggests an explosion of groups of varying sizes and sophistication, many of which may now be mass-producing the drug on the Mexican side and passing it to a smattering of transportation and wholesale groups on the US side.
The competition may also be fueling at least some of the record violence in Mexico, which reached 27 homicides per 100,000 people in 2020. Some of the worst violence took place in the small state of Colima, home to the Port of Manzanillo, a main entry point for precursor chemicals. Violence also ticked up in Baja California and Zacatecas, key synthetic drug trafficking corridors that saw homicide rates more than twice the national average.
A Deadly Trail
The explosion of methamphetamine also appears to be another marketing triumph for the criminal groups, which seem to be learning from other experiments with drugs such as fentanyl. The potent synthetic opioid is regularly camouflaged in fake OxyContin, Xanax or Percocet pills. The pills are a softer entry point for users, who prefer the prescription drugs and are unaware they are even taking fentanyl.
The deception plays a role in skyrocketing use of the drug, as well as startling number of overdoses it causes. But methamphetamine is catching up. In 2019, the last year for which there is data, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) chronicled 16,167 methamphetamine overdose deaths -- up from the 3,627 overdoses related to the drug in 2013.
Of the overdose deaths registered in 2019, 52 happened in New Hampshire, which is part of the reason why the Adderall pills caught DEA Agent DeLena’s attention.
“We have drug trafficking organizations, cartels in Mexico, that are making a business decision now to manufacture pills, Adderall pills, made with nothing but methamphetamine,” he said during the press conference.
Adderall is used in the United States to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but is widely abused. Often referred to as “the study buddy,” as many as five million people take Adderall annually without a prescription, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
The potential for growth, in other words, is huge. Indeed, the criminal groups marketing methamphetamine appear to be tapping into numerous markets, including the opioid market, and using the same well-established distribution networks to deliver their goods, counterdrug agents say.
The combination is strange and deadly. Of the 52 overdoses related to methamphetamine in New Hampshire in 2019, 46 included some opioid. The same trend is true across the nation.
“It’s probably one of the most critical messages that we’ve had to deliver yet,” DeLena said in his press conference. “This is something that is really disturbing.”
Main Photo: The Associated Press