Plunge in Meth Labs Paves Way for Potent Import Restrictions on key ingredients used to make methamphetamines have sharply curtailed production in small "mom and pop" labs in the United States. But meth called "crystal" or "ice" is now pouring in from Mexico, and it's much more potent and addictive.
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Plunge in Meth Labs Paves Way for Potent Import

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Plunge in Meth Labs Paves Way for Potent Import

Plunge in Meth Labs Paves Way for Potent Import

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ALEX CHADWICK: This is DAY TO DAY I'm Alex Chadwick.

ADAMS: And I'm Noah Adams. For years now throughout Middle America meth labs have been mostly mom and pop operations. Tens of thousands of them. They're on the decline now but there's more potent meth pouring in from Mexico - and it seems more deeply addictive. NPR's Howard Barges, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Outside Ozark, Missouri TJ Stevens of the Comet Drug Task Force lays out a small bag on the hood of a car. It holds what looks like shards of shattered glass and it was taken from a 45 year old grandmother who was then placed under arrest.

Mr. TJ STEVENS (Comet Drug Task Force, Ozark Missouri): Inside her purse officers discovered a little small cellophane Ziploc baggie that contains crystal substance which positively tested for methamphetamine.

BERKES: This crystallized form of meth is also called ice and it's showing up more and more in the nation's interior, especially in rural areas in the South, Midwest, and West. It's replacing the homemade meth once produced in tens of thousands of small labs in kitchens, bathrooms, motel rooms, and cars. They're declining due to laws restricting access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, key ingredients in meth recipes. The new supply is imported and it's more insidious, according to users.

Unidentified man: The first time I ever did it, it gave me a headache, made me sick you know and I was like, man. So I don't even do it anymore. I don't like it, and because it's poison.

BERKES: This man used to cook the homemade meth which he refers to as speed. He's now working with police as they investigate the new stuff, ice or crystal. They've asked us not to reveal his name.

Unidentified man: It's more addictive, quicker addictive. I think they'll have more trouble in the, in the future with ice than they ever did with the old dope and stuff. Speed is bad, ice is worse. That's, you know that's my take on it.

BERKES: Ice is generally produced in large super labs and smuggled in from Mexico. It can be more pure and potent than the meth made locally, depending upon the quality of the ingredients, the skill of the producer, how much filler is added and how often it's abused. But six meth users gathered at the Ozark Center, a drug treatment program in Joplin, Missouri, say they've encountered some powerful ice from Mexico. The group sits in plastic chairs in a circle. The biggest is Andrew Brandon who wears a knit ski cap despite a warm day.

Mr. ANDREW BRANDON (Ozark Center Drug Treatment Program): I've done ice to where one hit I didn't know if I was going to catch my breath again. That was pretty good. A little scary.

Mr. ALAN ALBERTSON (Ozark Center Drug Treatment Program): That's taking your breath away. Yeah I know when it takes your breath away you know that you've got some good stuff.

BERKES: That's Alan Albertson who adds that the incredible high has a deep and dark low, especially compared to the local meth which is known as red and black. Andrew Brandon also weighs in.

Mr. BRANDON: The come down from red and black opposed to ice is, is considerably different. And in my experience ice is more violent.

Mr. ALBERTSON: I mean I was shot with a shotgun and I picked the BB's out with the tweezers, but I was so amped up that I just thought that I had BB's all over me so I just kept digging my skin. And I've seen people shave their head till they still think they got hair and it's just a big scab on their head. That's they real pure ice will just make you hallucinate, nutty.

Mr. CHAD HUMPHREY: The scary part is, as with anything new, no one really knows the long term effects of it because it hasn't been out as long as the red and black. Who knows about the ice. I mean, as with anything new, that's the scary part of it to me.

BERKES: That's Chad Humphrey who spent 15 years cooking meth. Served 18 months in prison and is just finished residential treatment at the Ozark Center in Joplin, Missouri. Some users say Mexican ice is more addictive simply because it's smoked.

Unidentified man: Basically the fundamental nature, because anytime you start smoking something you're going to keep going back and smoking more, and more, and more, and more to stay high.

BERKES: This is the former meth cook we're not naming because he's now working with police.

Unidentified man: The people who shoot it do less of it than people who smoke it because they have to keep hitting that pipe over and over and over to stay at a level. Anything you smoke in the lungs goes through that way seems to become more addictive. People who smoke it seem like they spend more money and become harder to kick it.

BERKES: Ice arriving from Mexico is generally smoked and is more pure, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Ice imports are up sharply in the last five years. Also rising sharply, is the percentage of people reporting for drug treatment who smoke meth. The Ozark Center in Joplin, Missouri says its meth patients are addicted sooner and longer, and the flow of meth patients didn't ease up one bit when the small local labs began to decline. Kelly Bockay(ph) is the center's clinical supervisor.

Ms. KELLY BOCKAY (Ozark Center clinical supervisor): Maybe meth is here to stay. I don't know. It's, it's by far the strongest chemical that I've seen people use or abuse, become addicted to in terms of getting in and hanging on.

BERKES: Bockay says the influx of meth from Mexico has not prompted changes in treatment which still includes group counseling sessions for meth users.

Mr. ALBERTSON: Are we talking about processing anything to do with meth?

Unidentified man: Process like we normally do.

Mr. ALBERTSON: Okay so remember how yesterday how we had that conversation?

BERKES: Alan Albertson and five other recovering meth users face an Ozark Center counselor now, in what the center calls a processing session. These men in t-shirts and jeans are part of a growing group nationwide, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. In the last five years as small local meth labs began to decline and the flow of Mexican ice increased, the number of addicted meth users doubled. The number of meth users getting treatment jumped 30 percent and far fewer meth users escaped addiction. One meth problem has been replaced by another. Howard Berkes NPR News.

CHADWICK: All week long NPR is exploring what we call America's forgotten war, the war on drugs. Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED there's a look at the multi-billion dollar effort to fight cocaine in Columbia and you can find earlier installments and a timeline of the drug wars on our Web site,

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