How Meth Works

The State of Meth Today
Arrested members of an international drug syndicate led by a major Malaysian drug lord wear masks as they stand in front of the 164 kilograms of crystal meth that Indonesian police seized and later destroyed, 2015. Jefta Images/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Since the 1980s, many legislative efforts and changes in the law have been made to curb the escalating abuse of methamphetamine. These haven't been altogether successful. Making possession of precursor drugs and production equipment illegal has simply pushed the clandestine labs further underground without curbing production.

When powdered ephedrine fell under tighter control, cooks switched to still-unregulated pseudoephedrine pills. When sellers of pseudoephedrine were required to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), many scam operations did just that — so many, in fact, that the DEA couldn't process all the applications. Instead, it granted temporary licenses, and the pseudoephedrine continued to be sold in bulk to large meth operations.

Making matters worse, efforts by the U.S. government to change over-the-counter access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were met with great resistance by the pharmaceutical lobby. While lobbyists fought to keep individually packaged pseudoephedrine pills available on store shelves, meth cooks were buying up as many packages as they could (often using "smurfs" to run around buying the pills) and unsealing each individual pill. These pill packages are called "blister packs," and larger meth operations went so far as to purchase "de-blistering" machines to save the time and effort it took to do it by hand. After much effort on the part of the DEA and other law enforcement and governmental agencies, pseudoephedrine (sold in the form of cold medicine) in the United States is now only available behind the counter.

The federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act was such a success that domestic meth production plummeted. Gone were the sensational news stories about exploding home labs and Sudafed hoarding. Production shifted largely to Mexican superlabs, which make a more potent and more affordable (read: more tempting and more addictive) version nearly 100 percent pure that's then smuggled over the border and into American cities [source: Schuppe].

In recent years, drugs like heroin and prescription opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone, Oxycontin and fentanyl have garnered most of the headlines. But in the meantime, huge quantities of meth flow across America's border with Mexico. As much as 4 percent of the American population used meth in 2015, up from 3 percent in 2010, and double the number of heroin abusers. In 2014, about 3,700 people died from meth overdoses [source: Pew].

The drug has been quietly hooking users in the convenient shadow of America's opioid crisis. Surprisingly, meth cases accounted for the majority of federal drug cases in more than half of U.S. states in 2015 [source: DEA]. In short, meth doesn't need the headlines to continue wreaking its societal havoc. Sure the meth-driven madness of "Breaking Bad" may have ended after season five in 2013, but for the rest of America, the very real methamphetamine epidemic has not yet been written out of the script.

Last editorial update on May 8, 2018 04:18:27 pm.

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