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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | September 2006 

Texas Sees Spike in Demand for Stronger Meth from Mexico
email this pageprint this pageemail usKylene Kiang -

Thousands of empty cold medication packages litter the highway outside of Tijuana, Mexico. The pseudoephedrine contained in the medicine is used to produce methamphetamine, and the area around Tijuana is home to many clandestine laboratories that produce the drug. (David Maung)
As the heyday of basement and backyard methamphetamine labs appears to be in decline, Texas police and narcotics officials say demand for the drug is growing stronger, in part because of greater smuggling efforts by Mexican drug traffickers.

The number of clandestine meth labs in Texas has dropped significantly since last year. At the same time, seizures of meth produced in Mexican "superlabs" have skyrocketed.

Last year, Drug Enforcement Administration branches in Texas seized 970.9 kilograms (2,140 pounds) of meth, 44 percent more than the amount seized in 2004.

And in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Texas Department of Public Safety seized 150 percent more meth than it did during the same period last year, said Pat O'Burke, deputy commissioner of the narcotics division at DPS.

Nearly all of these seizures have involved Mexican "ice," a smokable form of meth that is more pure and more addictive than the crystal meth of previous decades.

"If you were to go back 18 months ago, we were finding more than 100 labs in a month. Now it's about four or five per month," O'Burke said.

With fewer local labs to bust, law enforcement officers are going back to basics: investigating drug-trafficking rings and reverting to traditional techniques to combat Texas' meth problem.

About 80 percent of the nation's meth supply originates in Mexico, according to the DEA. Mexican news reports have noted a high presence of meth superlabs in the southern half of the Baja Peninsula and in the central western states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Sinaloa.

Mexico's federal police have dismantled 130 labs since 2000 (compared with 92,000 lab busts in the United States during roughly the same period).

Texas is a primary corridor for the spread of meth from Mexico to the Midwest and parts of the East Coast.

And Austin, with Interstate 35 running through it, has been noted by the DEA as a major point on a north-south shipment route for many drugs, including meth.

Mexican meth shipments also are entering via California, Arizona and New Mexico, the DEA said.

Tom Vinger, a Texas DPS spokesman, said the police need to view any interstate in Texas as a major drug corridor.

"The truth of the matter is that everybody knows there's a lot that gets through," Vinger said, "but that is not to say that the amounts we seize are insignificant."

'Sudafed ban' effects

State restrictions on the purchase of cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine core chemicals used in the production of meth have made it difficult for small meth operations to thrive in Texas.

Passed in August 2005, the Texas law limits each customer to 6 grams, or about two packages, of cold pills each month.

Retailers are required to keep cold and cough medicines behind the counter and record the names of customers who buy them. The records are kept for two years after the purchase date.

So far, 39 states have enacted similar legislation. Other states with the restriction, including Oklahoma and California, also have seen a decrease in the number of local meth labs but an increase in meth seizures and arrests.

This month, a federal law puts all medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind drugstore counters. The law is part of the latest renewal of the USA Patriot Act and will make retailers enforce monthly buying limits and require customers to show identification.

Low-budget meth users aiming to skirt the law are more likely to make heavy ephedrine purchases from Internet pharmacies, O'Burke said.

About a year ago, a team of officers from the Austin Police Department began posing as online drug buyers to ferret out Internet pharmacies that did not comply with the law, said Lt. Max Westbrook of the Austin Police Department's organized crime division.

"The intensity of this segment is pretty brazen," Westbrook said.

Cooperative efforts

U.S. officials say they are working more closely with their Mexican counterparts to stop the Mexican cartels.

The U.S. State Department is funding the training of a 1,000-person Mexican police squad to deal solely with meth trafficking. In May, Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca announced strategies to stop the shipment of precursor chemicals into Mexican ports, starting with the Port of Manzanillo on the Pacific coast.

The DEA has eight offices in Mexico staffed by liaisons who transfer information from Mexican authorities to their American counterparts.

Mexico is making strides toward stopping the illegal shipment of precursor chemicals for meth, resulting in a more than 40 percent drop in legal imports of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in the past two years. Mexican law now requires importers to transport such precursor chemicals in escorted armed vehicles.

And starting next year, Mexicans will need a prescription for cough medicines that contain pseudoephedrine.

Corruption in Mexico, where the power of drug cartels frequently overwhelms the criminal justice system, is a concern. Mexican trafficking of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, meth and other drugs reportedly generates as much as $10 billion a year.

The State Department has said that the United States' relationship with President Vicente Fox is much better than with past Mexican administrations.

And the Mexican justice system has increased the number of extraditions and prison terms for drug felons. In 2005, the Mexican government extradited a record 41 fugitives to the United States and expelled or deported an additional 146 criminals.

"The Mexican government as an institution does not condone corruption," said DEA special agent Steve Robertson, who spent 14 years working with various DEA branches in Texas. "At the end of the day, we have to respect each other because we're in the same line of work. We're both very aware of the effects of drugs in our communities."

Researchers weigh in

Studies released this summer have portrayed contradictory messages on meth's impact in the United States.

In a telephone survey of 500 sheriffs from 44 states, 48 percent said meth was their top drug problem. The survey was released July 18 by the National Association of Counties.

But another study released in June reported that the nation's meth "crisis" has been grossly mischaracterized when compared to cocaine and marijuana use. The study by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that researches criminal justice policy issues, said meth is actually among the least commonly used drugs and that only 0.2 percent of Americans are regular meth users.

University of Texas professor Jane Maxwell, who has researched drug trends for 30 years, said the Sentencing Project's study uses only household reported data, which can exclude people who are single, homeless, in the military or in prison.

"They've used indicators that tend to underreport drug use," Maxwell said.

Today, with 26 million addicts worldwide, meth has been deemed the most abused hard drug by the U.N. World Drug Report. The United Nations also reports that the number of meth addicts has grown so fast that it now equals the combined number of cocaine and heroin users.

The United States is home to about 1.4 million users, while the highest concentration of addicts is in Southeast and East Asia.

The price of 'ice'

Street prices per ounce for 'ice' meth in Texas:

City Price

Austin $500-$1,000

Dallas $1,400

Fort Worth $800-$1,000

Houston $700-$1,200

Lubbock $1,200

McAllen $900

San Antonio $1,000-$1,500

Tyler $950-$1,250

Sources: Drug Enforcement Administration, UT Addiction Research Institute

Methamphetamine trends in Texas

Year Kilograms meth seized Percent change Meth lab busts Percent change

2005 970.9 +44 percent 269 40.5 percent

2004 673.5 +17 percent 452 +0.67 percent

2003 577.1 +340 percent 449 19.1 percent

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration

The cost of methamphetamine

Street prices per pound for methamphetamine in Texas:

City Price per pound meth

Austin $6,000-$10,000 domestic

Fort Worth $4,500-$10,000 Mexican

Houston $8,000-$15,000 Mexican

Laredo $4,500-$5,500 domestic

Lubbock $7,000-$8,000 Mexican

McAllen $7,000 Mexican

San Antonio $6,000-$8,000 domestic, $8,000-$12,000 Mexican

Tyler $6,000-$7,000 domestic

Sources: Drug Enforcement Administration, UT Addiction Research Institute

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