The days of mom and pop methamphetamine labs may be drawing to a close in the US. It's not that meth is any less popular — consumption numbers remain steady — but the dwindling supply generated from the cottage industry is being quickly replaced by transnational Mexican cartels.
The number of labs — think Breaking Bad-style motor homes in middle America — has fallen from almost 24,000 in 2004, to 11,573 in 2013, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data reported by the Associated Press. The 2013 seizures are a slight increase of 363 from 2012. For the first time in more than a decade, the number of cooking operations in America's meth heartland has shown a consistent decline, at least according to the stats the feds are publicizing. It now seems the drug is coming up from south of the border.
Meth seizures along the border have spiked, according to DEA seizure data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request made by VICE News. In California, for example, the feds captured more than three and a half metric tons of the drug in 2013, up from 2012's half a ton, and lesser amounts in years past.
Texas showed a startling increase as well — with the feds seizing one and a half metric tons, versus about 350 kilos in 2012. The trend continues through Arizona, where more than one metric ton was seized in 2013 compared with about 220 kilos in 2012.
New Mexico was the only border state where seizures have remained relatively flat in recent history, according to the DEA documents.
The spike in border seizures is likely the result of multinational crime syndicates dominating the American methamphetamine market, according to Sergeant Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, the local law enforcement agency in a meth-plagued part of Missouri. The upshot, Grellner said, is that police are now devoting fewer resources to busting local labs.
'There used to be predictable places to find meth cookers, but those spots have long been abandoned.'
"The good thing for the communities is this: meth is a horrible drug that decimates the user, and the labs are manpower intensive to destroy," Grellner told VICE News. "With [mom and pop] labs, it's like swatting mosquitoes in July. And now we can go back to working drugs in a traditional and effective manner."
When cops destroy labs, they often have to wear hazmat suits, deal with extremely hazardous chemicals, and face imminent danger from meth addicts. According to Grellner, the labs are often chemically volatile, sometimes causing collateral damage when they burst into flames. Hospital burn wards in some states have been overwhelmed by meth addicts.
There are several reasons for the decline in the cottage meth industry, Grellner explained.
One is that the cartels have been improving their product for years. In late 2010, imported meth was about 55 percent pure, then 60 percent in late 2011, and in 2012 it was close to 100 percent pure. Grellener theorized that's because the cartel chemists have managed to alter one of meth's isomers, turning L-methamphetamine, which is commonly used to relieve congestion, into D-methamphetamine, which is the component that gets a person buzzed.
"They can split the isomers, and get rid of the L isomer, and so the meth coming in is just as good as what we're making here. [The cartels] spent a lot of money in research and development," Grellner said.
Because the cartels do not have legal access to pseudoephedrine — a common ingredient in cold medication in the US that is virtually illegal in Mexico — the development is a major breakthrough. The resulting price drop has flooded the market with cheap meth.
It's also becoming difficult for American cooks to find cheap cooking ingredients, though still not impossible due to the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying efforts to keep pseudoephedrine available over the counter. Since small time chemists have been unable to readily replace that key compound in their recipes, it's become increasingly difficult to compete with the high purity, low cost product the cartels have released on the black market.
Cartel meth isn't restricted to middle America. The Southwest border region has long been a major trafficking artery for cartels moving product to major drug markets across the US and in Canada.
A law enforcement officer in Northern California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he's not authorized by his agency to talk to the media, said that a recent raid interdicted several pounds of pure meth that was in a vacuum-packed bag and wrapped in coffee grounds to hide the smell.
The law enforcement officer explained that the meth he sees on the streets in the Bay Area is no longer the kind coming from a couple of guys cooking the drug up in a trailer. And it's been years, maybe as long as a decade, since he's seized low-purity, brown meth — commonly referred to as Anthrax or Thrax.
"There used to be predictable places to find meth cookers, but those spots have long been abandoned," he said. "No one's talking about tipping a joint with 'Thrax' anymore."
Aside from the West Coast drug corridors, the DEA seizure data stats suggest large portions of the meth shipped to America's heartland moves across the Texas desert. Grellner said Interstate 70, which runs through Kansas City, is serving as a distribution hub for the region, allowing the cartels to move their product to neighboring states such as Indiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
"Interdiction task forces continue to make arrests and seizures [of drugs from this trafficking route] in Iowa, and as far away as Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta is a huge hub for cartel meth," Grellner said.
Considering the remarkable increase in meth seizures along the border and the corresponding drop in lab busts in the now-shrinking meth heartland, it's clear the enforcement burden has shifted from local and state law enforcement to the feds. The problem, of course, is the that the porous border with Mexico has historically been difficult, if not impossible, to entirely police. Given the colossal failure of America's war on drugs, it's not entirely clear what — if anything — the authorities will be able to do about this new source of cheap, potent meth.
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn