The Washington Times
Commentary, 9 February 1997

Carson Nightwine / Rowan Kelly

Unabated Methamphetamine Abuses

President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act on Oct. 3, 1996. This new law attacks precursor chemicals and the posession of equipment needed to manufacture methamphetamines.

Mr. Clinton said, ³I am particularly pleased we are acting before this epidemic spreads.² Mr. Clinton added, ³We have to stop Œmethı before it becomes the crack of the 1990s. And this legislation gives us a chance to do it.² Unfortunately ³meth² is not a new problem in the United States. Methamphetamine, which is known on the street as ³speed,² ³crank,² or ³ice,² is a powerful stimulant. So powerful, in fact, that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has called it the most lethal substance to hit the streets during the entire 35-year war on drugs.

Methamphetamine use has spread to all areas of the United States and continues to be on an upswing. Estimates from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicate that methamphetamine-related emergency room episodes increased 346 percent from 1991 to 1995.

Like other illegal drugs, methamphetamine can be administered in a variety of ways. It can be snorted, injected, smoked, or taken orally. No matter how it is administered, methamphetimine is instantly mind-altering. Users typically experience increased alertness, decreased fatigue, and an overall feeling of euphoria. This euphoria, however, conceals a host of dangers faced by individual methamphetamine abusers. According to the Center for a Drug Free Workplace, prolonged methamphetamine abuse causes "severe depression, weight loss, rapid mood changes, hallucinations, and permanent brain, heart, and lung damage." Intraveneous methamphetamine users face the further risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS.

A methamphetamine-induced "high" artificially boosts self-confidence, many users are overcome by a so-called "superman syndrome." In this state, methamphetamine abusers ignore their physical limitations and attempt tasks which they are normally incapable of performing.

Methamphetamines can be produced virtually anywhere. Motel rooms, trailer parks, and suburban homes can all be turned into clandestine "meth" labs capable of producing substantial quantities of the drug. The technical know-how needed to produce methamphetamines can easily be found on the internet. These peculiarities make the production of methamphetamine unique, and especially difficult to control. Recent analyses have indicated that methamphetamine from these labs can be as high as 97-99 percent pure.

About the only thing that stands in the way of widespread production and distribution of methamphetamine is the limited availability of the chemicals required to make it. Ephedrine and hydriotic acid, two components of methamphetamine, are tightly controlled in the United States. Yet the recent surge in methamphetamine use suggests that drug traffickers are finding ways around this impediment.

In the past the methamphetamine problem was centered in the southwestern United States. The DEA even identified California as a "source country" of methamphetamine because of the hundreds of illicit drug labs throught the state. More than 1,800 deaths were caused by methamphetamine abuse from 1992-1994 -- a 145 percent increase in just two years. The majority of these cases occurred in the four western cities of Los Angeles, San Fransisco, San Diego, and Phoenix. California emergency room admissions related to methamphetamine abuse increased by more than 366 percent from 1983 to 1993 (Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996). The recent surge in methamphetamine abuse can be attributed to the growth and influence of the U.S.-Mexican drug connection.

Although the precursor chemicals may be effectively regulated in the United States, in Mexico they are not. Highly organized Mexican drug trafficking syndicates have taken advantage of their country's lenient regulatory practices to dominate the United States' methamphetamine trade. Utilizing the same trafficking routes through which up to 70 percent of the cocaine arriving in the United States now passes, the Mexican trafficking organizations have been able to deliver the chemicals needed to produce methamphetamine to associates living in the United States. These associates then "cook-up" and distribute the final product. In addition to this practice of illicit chemical diversion, these criminal groups also smuggle methamphetamine produced in Mexico to the United States.

It is this "Mexican Connection" that makes methamphetamine a particularily ominous threat. Operating with impunity south of the U.S.-Mexico frontier, the Mexican trafficking organizations are now in a position to expand the methamphetamine market in the United States. With their cocaine and marijuana businesses already booming, we can expect these organizations to market methamphetamine alongside their cache of other illegal substances in more and more cities across America.

Carson A. Nightwine, Jr. and Rowan B. Kelly are research assistants at the National Defense Council Foundation.