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Methamphetamine Abuse

National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
July 1, 2006

Fifty-eight percent of county law enforcement agencies surveyed by the National Association of Counties in 2005 listed methamphetamine as the number one drug problem in their area. States as diverse as Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont, and Wyoming reported increases of more than 90 percent in methamphetamine arrests in the prior year. Cheap, easy to manufacture, and long lasting, methamphetamine has become more popular than cocaine in some U.S. cities. And the problem is no longer confined to discrete regions of the country.

Why is methamphetamine abuse such a growing problem, and what should police and communities do to combat this threat? The final report of a study funded by the National Institute of Justice provides findings that State and local law enforcement and public safety officials need to know to answer these questions.[1]

Statistics Belie the Extent of the Problem

Methamphetamine is a completely synthetic drug. Refinements to inexpensive manufacturing methods in the 1980’s and 1990’s led to abuse in epidemic proportions in areas of the West and Midwest. By the millennium, the drug had taken hold in the South and Midwest. While methamphetamine use has been consistently high in States such as California, Hawaii, Idaho, and Nevada,[2] self-reported use among adults nationwide has risen from just under 2 percent in 1994 to around 5 percent in 2004.[3] Treatment admissions data reflect that the national rate of treatment for methamphetamine abuse rose from 1 percent in 1992 to more than 6 percent in 2003.[4]

But national data are misleading. While these figures reflect increases at low levels on a national scale, regional data gathered from clients entering drug treatment provide a far more serious picture of the problem and chronicle both its remarkable increase and its geographic movement.[5] In 1992, no State reported that 10 percent or more of all of its treatment admissions were for methamphetamine. By 2003, however, 35 percent of States reported more than 10 percent of all admissions were for methamphetamine, and 8 States reported an admissions figure of more than 20 percent.[6] While the highest rates were found in Hawaii (45 percent), Idaho (42 percent), and California (31 percent), Midwestern States such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota also saw large increases. Southern States such as Arkansas increased their numbers tenfold or more.[7]

Regional differences in data on emergency room (ER) visits for methamphetamine-related problems are similarly dramatic.[8] While rates in some cities with high numbers of ER visits for problems related to methamphetamine use have remained unchanged or even declined somewhat, rates in other areas have experienced enormous upswings since 1995. These include Minneapolis (up 243 percent), New Orleans (up 194 percent), St. Louis (up 97 percent), and Atlanta (up 67 percent).[9] These local trends were mirrored in NIJ’s Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) system data. In 11 ADAM sites studied in 2003, 25 percent of arrestees tested positive for methamphetamine in their systems; by contrast, only 1 ADAM site had a proportion that high in 1996.[10]

A Specialized Approach

Everything about methamphetamine—from its composition to its manufacturing and distribution systems and the physical effect it has on its users—is unique. And these distinctions require that law enforcement officers adopt specialized approaches to criminal investigations and arrests.

Unlike imported drugs such as heroin or cocaine, methamphetamine is easy to produce domestically. It is synthesized from precursor chemicals using relatively easy production methods that are commonly available on the Internet or in underground publications; anyone with high school chemistry experience can “cook” methamphetamine. Many of the base chemicals are household or farm products that are not feasible to regulate. However, other elements (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products, and anhydrous ammonia) have come under serious scrutiny, and Federal and State legislation now monitors their sale and limits their availability.[11] Unfortunately, as restrictions effectively close “Mom-and-Pop” operations — also known as small toxic labs or STLs — the demand for methamphetamine remains. Law enforcement in many areas reports increased evidence of organized drug traffickers, largely from Mexico, covering the established demand.

Although the number of small “Mom-and-Pop” labs is far greater than the number of superlabs (labs capable of making 10 or more pounds of product at a time), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) states that the bulk of methamphetamine on the U.S. market comes from superlabs concentrated in the Central Valley and southern areas of California or in Mexico. Data show that the presence of superlabs in the United States is expanding. Historically, precursor chemicals were smuggled to superlabs in the Southwest and California, but the current distribution is more geographically dispersed throughout the country. DEA’s Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System reports that the number of superlabs seized in the western regions has actually declined by half between 1999 and 2004, but has doubled in the South. And while seizures of methamphetamine powder have declined in some areas, officials report an increase in seizures of the higher potency crystalline form not generally made by local “cooks.”

Meth Labs Pose Dangers for Law Enforcement and Communities

The way that methamphetamine is manufactured and distributed hinders law enforcement officers’ ability to locate and shut down smaller labs. First, detection of these laboratories is difficult due to their clandestine placement in rural settings where law enforcement resources are limited. Second, criminal investigations are also hindered by the fact that — unlike sales of crack and heroin — most methamphetamine sales take place indoors, out of the view of police surveillance. Also, much of the methamphetamine produced in “Mom-and-Pop” labs is consumed by the manufacturers or sold to a very small group of friends or acquaintances. This close-knit distribution system impedes law enforcement officers’ ability to use traditional investigative methods to infiltrate a distribution group and identify those who are committing the crimes, target laboratories, and take down operations.

Methamphetamine laboratories also pose a serious danger to law enforcement officers. The use of toxic and combustible chemicals makes executing search warrants at meth laboratories a dangerous undertaking. In fact, reports of injuries to responding law enforcement officers have almost doubled from 2002 to 2003.[12] Whether the laboratory is raided by investigators or encountered by accident during the course of an operation, first responders and police agencies require specialized training and equipment. Hermetically sealed hazmat suits, licensed contractors, and specialized training in how to safely process the scene are expensive resources that are in limited supply in local law enforcement agencies.

Methamphetamine production and use also negatively impact the quality of life in areas where it has taken hold. For example, child protection service agencies across affected areas are inundated with cases involving the removal of children endangered by chemicals and toxic fumes. Child neglect cases also abound in areas where methamphetamine use and production exists.

Methamphetamine laboratories also contaminate surrounding property. It is estimated that 1 pound of methamphetamine produced in a clandestine lab yields 5 to 6 pounds of hazardous waste.[13] The resultant environmental damage to property, water supplies, farmland, and vegetation where labs have operated costs local jurisdictions thousands of dollars in clean up and makes some areas unusable for extended periods of time. Damage to some areas is extensive. For example, U.S. Forest Service officers have encountered tree “kills” in areas surrounding STLs, and ranchers in Arizona have reported suspicious cattle deaths in areas downstream from labs.

These findings demonstrate that methamphetamine is not just an issue for law enforcement to contend with—it’s an entire community’s problem.

The Methamphetamine User: Not Your Ordinary Addict

Available data on typical methamphetamine users reveal that most are white, are in their 20’s or 30’s, have a high school education or better, and are employed full- or part-time. Methamphetamine is used by housewives, students, club-goers, truckers, and a growing number of others. Almost as many women as men use methamphetamine (55 percent male, 45 percent female.)

But a methamphetamine user is not the typical drug user. That is because methamphetamine has acute toxic effects that produce long-term problems for the user and those around him/her. It is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that promotes the release of neurotransmitters that control the brain’s messaging systems for reward and pleasure, sleep, appetite, and mood. However ingested (injected, taken orally, or snorted), methamphetamine produces extended highs and potentially agitated or overenergized states.

Chronic use of methamphetamine causes long-term alterations to users’ brain chemistry and structure that result in impaired memory, mood alterations, impaired motor coordination, and psychiatric problems, even long after terminating use. The short-term management of the agitated user at arrest and the long-term health problems that jails and lock-ups must deal with make methamphetamine users a serious logistical and financial burden, particularly in areas with limited manpower or resources.

Meth Matters

Methamphetamine—once only a regional problem of the West and Northwest— has hit Midwestern and Southern States hard and is moving east. Methamphetamine is cheap and easy to manufacture, and profit margins are high. Its powerful stimulant effect has made it more popular than cocaine in many areas. It is a drug that appears to move easily into new areas not typically associated with drug trafficking, where smaller labs serve local groups of users. As a demand or market is established, however, more organized manufacturers and distributors are attracted.

Methamphetamine presents major challenges and resource demands for State and local public safety and law enforcement. The implementation of community resource coordination, joint agency initiatives, and development of new skills and partnerships are essential steps to take on the challenges presented by methamphetamine abuse.

NCJ 214117

For More Information

  • Pennell, S., J. Ellet, C. Rienick, and J. Grimes, Meth Matters: Report on Methamphetamine Users in Five Western Cities, Research Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, April 1999 (NCJ 176331), available at https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/176331.pdf.

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 254, July 2006.

Date Published: July 1, 2006