The number of clandestine methamphetamine labs in some Central Texas counties largely vanished, authorities say, after the federal government restricted how people could buy cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, an ingredient that has commonly been used to make meth.
But nearly eight years after then-president George W. Bush signed legislation aimed in part at combating the “methamphetamine epidemic,” the Austin Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies say they are seeing an increase in both the number of meth cases and how much of the drug they seize from suspects.
Though some meth is still being made locally, authorities say, most of it is coming from Mexico, where cartels are manufacturing the drug in bigger batches and sending it stateside. In Austin, the amount of meth police seized has surged from six pounds or less annually in 2009 through 2012 to about 32 pounds in 2013.
The department expects a similar haul from seizures this year.
Pseudoephedrine regulations enacted in 2006 limited how much meth local producers were able to cook, but Cmdr. Donald Baker, who until last summer led the department’s organized crime division for about two years, said the drug has seen a resurgence since.
“This is the crack of the 21st century,” he said.
According to the latest report on drug markets worldwide, published by the United Nations in May, the market for amphetamines like methamphetamine is expanding. Globally, seizures have risen to a new high of 123 tons in 2011, the most recent year included in the report. That’s a 66 percent increase compared with 2010, when 74 tons were seized across the world.
The most meth — 31 tons — was seized in Mexico in 2011; 13 tons were seized there in 2010, the report says. It was the first time more meth was seized there than in the United States, though seizures also increased here, from 15 tons in 2010 to 23 tons in 2011.
However, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services do not reflect a similar increase in methamphetamine use.
Among about 255,600 people surveyed nationwide in 2010 or 2011, less than half a percent said they used meth, according to the agency. That’s comparable to the results of surveys in 2008 and 2009, and that’s fewer people than those who said they used the drug in earlier years. The portion of Texans who said they used meth similarly dropped.
Other indicators suggest the problem could be growing, though.
The Travis County medical examiner found evidence of meth use in 12 autopsies in 2009, or about 1.2 percent of Travis County cases. By 2012, that number had grown to 30, or about 2.8 percent of Travis County cases.
Authorities in Travis and Hays counties did not report a dramatic spike in the amount of meth seized like Austin did, but agencies in both jurisdictions said that cases and quantities are increasing.
San Marcos Sgt. Wade Parham, commander of the San Marcos/Hays County Narcotics Task Force, said officers still encounter local users who produce just enough of the drug for themselves or bit sales. However, most of the meth they seize now can be traced back to Mexico, he said.
“Cartels have picked up the slack,” Parham said. “Large labs in Mexico produce more meth than we ever thought of making in the United States.”
While cocaine has historically been more common in Austin than methamphetamine, police Lt. David Socha said, meth has had the highest increase in seizures over the past five years. Cocaine seizures have dropped, he said, while heroin and marijuana seizures have stayed flat.
Socha said that seems to be in part because as cocaine has become more expensive, the price of meth has dropped by half. Cocaine comes from South America, but the Mexican cartels have more control over meth since they manufacture it, he said.
It’s also relatively cheap for the cartels to produce and they already have the distribution channels in place from trafficking marijuana, Baker said.
Methamphetamine now is likely more dangerous than before pseudoephedrine was banned, said Baker, who added that cutting off the flow could be impossible. “It’s going to take international pressure on Mexico to be able to crack down, or strengthening up our borders.”
Like Baker, Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, compared meth to crack. But he argues that they’re similar because their addictiveness and dangers have been exaggerated.
Misconceptions about both drugs “frighten the public, and they also lead to bad policy that causes real problems in people’s lives,” said Hart, who wrote a recent report aimed at dispelling myths about methamphetamine.
About 6 percent to 15 percent of people who try methamphetamine will go on to become addicted to it, he said, while 10 to 15 percent of people who try alcohol will become dependent, as will a third of those who try tobacco. About 15 percent to 20 percent will become addicted to cocaine, he said, and 20 percent to 25 percent will become addicted to heroin.
Hart also challenged the claim that meth now is purer and more potent now than it has been. The drug’s purity has always been relatively high, he said, whether it’s made in Mexico or from cold medicine in rural Travis County.
Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas, disagreed, and pointed to an analysis of all methamphetamine submitted to the Drug Enforcement Administration that shows the drug’s purity increased to 93 percent in June 2012, more than twice as strong as in July 2007. In the first quarter of 2013, the average purity of the drug was about 96 percent, according to the DEA.
Recent analysis by the agency also shows that the drug is more potent, Maxwell said. Meanwhile, street outreach workers are reporting that meth use is up, and that users are getting addicted faster, she said.
“We’re seeing meth at a higher quality than we’ve ever seen it, and as it decimates the street, we’re going to have a much larger problem,” she said.
‘You become a zombie’
Keith Winfield drank and used some drugs when he was in high school, but he sobered up by 17, went to college, married and had two children. As a chef, he excelled, winning awards for the dishes he made in restaurant kitchens in Washington state. But 11 years after his last drink, he had another.
He started smoking pot again, and one day, after trying to get some cocaine, he used meth for the first time. Within two months, he was using it every day. The high, he said, was incredible. Euphoric.
When he was using heavily, he’d regularly stay awake for about a week and then sleep for four or five days. Sometimes he stayed out all night, and sometimes he disappeared for a week at a time, with no regard, he said, for his wife or children. He was driving between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, buying meth, selling it and committing identity theft. An ounce would cost him about $800 to $1,000, he said, and if he didn’t sell it, about a third of it would last a couple of days depending on the quality.
Winfield said he spent two years in prison from 2002 to 2004 but started using again a few months after he was released, and he continued to steal people’s identities to fund his addiction.
He was high when he went to pick up his daughter from school a few minutes late one day and found her crying. She was in sixth grade, and when he asked her what was wrong, she said: “Daddy, I thought they took you away again.” He laughed it off. He didn’t care.
“You become a zombie,” he said. “Your only focus and drive is to get that drug. And whoever gets in your way … you don’t care, whether it’s, unfortunately, whether it’s your children, whether it’s your loved ones, whether it’s the law.”
His marriage had fallen apart and when he was arrested a second time, after kicking someone’s door in one night during a “meth-induced psychosis,” Winfield decided he needed help.
He’s been sober for nearly a decade, remarried, reconciled with his children and now works as a senior counselor at Austin Recovery.
It was there that Jane Bohls first sought treatment after she was arrested in 2000. After using methamphetamine for 27 years, she has been sober since. She said she shudders to think what would have happened if she hadn’t recovered.
“You’re so lost,” she said. “It’s really kind of a devastating disease.”
Asked if characterizations of meth use have been overblown, including describing it as an epidemic, Winfield said that since the drug was first introduced, it’s always been an attractive option for people who like stimulants. And he thinks a lot of those people who use it will get hooked.
“When it gets ahold of people, and what it turns people into, is an epidemic,” he said.
Austin meth seizures in solid ounces (approximate)
Source: Austin Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety