Mexican cartels have stepped up mass production and trafficking of methamphetamine, inundating Southern California with the potent drug for shipment across the United States.
Seizures of meth at the US-Mexico border reached a record high in 2014 and surged 33 percent around San Diego, according to Gary Hill, a Drug Enforcement Administration assistant special agent in charge of the area. The highly addictive substance — which follows a typical route from northwest Mexico up to Los Angeles for transport — has grown purer, cheaper, and more available over the past several years.
"Back in 2008, undercover agents were spending $8,000 to $10,000 a pound to buy it, but today it costs less than $3,500 a pound," Hill told VICE News, adding that traffickers often store the meth in houses around Los Angeles before distributing it widely. "We believe the cartels responsible are able to produce it in such large qualities that their overhead cost has diminished."
Meth seizures along the Mexico-California border and at the San Diego airport and seaport quadrupled from 3,693 to 14,732 pounds between 2009 and 2014, according to data shared by US Customs and Border Protection. Cannabis and cocaine seizures dropped in the meanwhile, from 277,542 to 132,075 pounds for marijuana and from 7,906 to 4,869 pounds for cocaine.
'All the meth addicts and dealers I talked to told me the same story: it's coming from Mexico.'
Most of the country's meth was produced domestically until a US crackdown on the chemicals required to produce the drug several years ago. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which went into effect in 2006, regulated the amount of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine that could be sold in over-the-counter drugstore products, such as Sudafed.
The regulations spurred an unintended predicament: Mexican drug cartels took over the meth business. About 90 percent of meth now comes from outside of the US, Hill said, much of it shockingly pure. But investigative journalist Scott Anderson told VICE News that the cartels have also developed a presence in rural and suburban areas within the US, where the drug is most popular.
The US government's efforts "gave the Mexican drug cartels a stake in rural America they never had before," Anderson, author of the book Shadow People: How Meth-Related Crime is Eating at the Heart of Rural America, told VICE News. "All the meth addicts and dealers I talked to told me the same story: it's coming from Mexico," he said, noting that the drug typically crosses into California, heads to San Diego and LA, then moves east or continues up to San Francisco for transport across the Midwest.
The trafficking route has sparked a resurgence of meth-related concerns in Southern California. A study produced by the San Diego Association of Governments determined that meth use among adult arrestees had dropped sharply after the 2006 pseudoephedrine regulations, but found it had almost returned to 2005 levels by 2013.
Los Angeles has clearly become a center for meth trafficking, but the most prevalent use remains in the countryside.
"From the standpoint of methamphetamine use, we continue to see more problems in the rural areas," Jeremy Martinez, an addiction psychiatrist who is the executive director of the Matrix Institute for Addiction in Los Angeles, told VICE News. "However, based on reports from patients, there seems to be a pattern of trafficking from Mexico to the US, and Los Angeles seems to be a hub." Patients have told him that certain shipments also seemed to come from China, either by way of Mexico or shipped directly into Los Angeles.
Martinez noted that the Venice Beach boardwalk was struck by a meth wave this summer, when many homeless individuals in the area began using the drug, though he believes the trend has since "tapered off." He said that most clients in the Matrix Institute's drug court program, an alternative to incarceration for people found with drugs, had used meth.
"There are different populations we've seen using it — homeless, lower socioeconomic, rural socioeconomic individuals," the Matrix Institute's director and co-founder Michael McCann told VICE News.
While most advocates agree that meth trafficking has increased, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue, a regional think tank, cautioned that the surge in seizures might reflect a shift in enforcement strategies.
"Seizures are all they measure, which doesn't tell you how much is getting through," he told VICE News. "I'd assume established firms in meth trade that were smuggling all along are probably smuggling the same amounts, and they have their channels getting it in."
Hakim also pointed out that many of the seizures came from the apprehension of drug mules — individuals literally walking or driving across the border with meth stashed on their person.
"If the meth is being sent by human mules, that implies small-time stuff," he said. "If you want large amounts, you send shipments of large amounts."
But Hill responded that human mules were just a small part of the trend, and argued that their numbers reveal the ease of obtaining meth in Mexico.
Whatever the case, it appears clear that meth is a concern that won't soon die. John Carnevale, an economist who worked at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy before starting his own consultancy, told VICE News that the alarming statistics reflected a need for renewed public education about the drug.
"We've just created incentives for non-US producers to make more," he said, referring to government regulations. "We need to focus heavily on prevention and education efforts to teach people about long-term effects. Meth use needs to be brought back into the national dialogue."
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman
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