The battle against methamphetamine seems to be one of the most successful campaigns in the nation's 30-year war on drugs. State and federal restrictions on access to ephedrine and pseudoepehdrine, a key ingredient in meth recipes, have sharply curtailed the production of home-made meth in small "mom and pop" labs.
But, a more potent and addictive form of meth is now pouring in from Mexico, providing a new challenge for the nation's drug warriors. It's also more insidious to users.
"It's just poison," said a veteran meth cook, who is helping police now. They've asked us to keep his identity secret. "First time I ever did it, [it] gave me a headache, made me sick... So, I don't even do it anymore."
The newer meth has actually been in the illicit drug-supply system for some time. It's commonly called "crystal" or "ice" because it resembles crushed glass. But drug control officials say more of it is now flowing into the United States from Mexico to meet the demand created by the loss of tens of thousands of small labs.
Meth seizures at California's ports of entry rose 40 percent in the last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Meth seizures at the border at El Paso, Texas, jumped 479 percent since 2002.
The flow of "ice" or "crystal" from Mexico escalated as home-brewed meth plummeted. Since 2003, seizures of small "mom and pop" meth labs plunged 88 percent in Nebraska, 73 percent in Iowa and Kansas, and 55 percent in Missouri, according to the Midwest office of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal agency.
Ice is a "more addictive, quicker addictive," said the veteran meth cook. "I think they'll have more trouble in the future with ice than they ever did with the old dope."
A Potent, 'Violent' Drug
Large "superlabs" in Mexico and Central America produce the ice pouring across the border. It's a form of meth that can be more pure and potent than meth made locally. Potency depends upon the quality of the ingredients, the skill of the producer, how much filler is added and how often the drug is abused. But meth users in treatment at Ozark Center in Joplin, Mo., said they've encountered powerful ice from Mexico. Andrew Brandon found ice both thrilling and frightening.
"I've done ice to where one hit, I didn't know if I was going to catch my breath again," Brandon said.
"When it's taking your breath away, you know you've got some good stuff," added Alan Albertson, another meth user at Ozark Center. He compared ice to the local meth, known as "red and black."
"The comedown from red and black... is considerably different," he said. "And in my experience, ice is more violent."
Albertson calls ice "nutty." It makes users hallucinate, he said, and he provided two examples. One stemmed from the time he was shot with a shotgun and tried to pick out the buckshot with tweezers.
"I was so amped up [on ice], I thought I had [buckshot] all over me. So I just kept digging my skin. And I've seen people shave their head and... they still think they got hair and [they leave] just a big scab on their head. That's the real pure ice."
Chad Humphrey spent 15 years cooking meth. He served an 18-month jail term and recently concluded residential treatment at Ozark Center. He's worried about the long-term health effects from ice.
"No-one really knows the long-term effects of it, because it hasn't been out as long as the red and black [meth]...That's the scary part to me."
More Addictive When Smoked
Some users say Mexican ice is more addictive, simply because it's smoked.
"Any time you start smoking something...you've got to go back and keep smoking more and more and more and more to stay high," said the former meth cook now working with police. "The people who shoot it get less than the people who smoke it, because they keep hitting that pipe over and over and over to stay at a level. And anything you smoke in the lungs... seems to become more addictive...and harder to kick."
Ice arriving from Mexico is generally smoked and is more pure, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. The center's 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment reports a dramatic increase in the percentage of people reporting for drug treatment who smoke meth. In 1993, 15 percent of meth users reporting for treatment smoked the drug. By 2004, 59 percent of meth users in treatment programs were meth smokers.
Treatment counselors at Ozark Center in Missouri say their meth patients become addicted sooner and longer. The center's flow of meth patients didn't ease up one bit when small local labs began to decline.
Nationally, the estimated number of addicted meth users doubled in the last five years, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The same survey found that far fewer meth users escaped addiction — the estimated number dropped by half.
And since 2000, drug treatment admissions for meth users have nearly doubled. Meth treatment and addiction have risen with the influx of ice from Mexico and the decline of home-grown meth labs.
"Maybe meth is here to stay," suggested Kelly Bokay, the clinical supervisor at Ozark Center. "It's by far the strongest chemical I've seen people abuse."