National Drug Intelligence Center
Illicit drug production in the Atlanta HIDTA region primarily involves the conversion of powder cocaine to crack cocaine, cannabis cultivation, and small-scale powder methamphetamine production. Crack cocaine conversion takes place principally in urban areas of the region. Cannabis cultivation and small-scale methamphetamine production often take place in rural areas of the Atlanta HIDTA region.
Retail-level crack cocaine distributors, generally African American criminal groups and street gangs, convert powder cocaine to crack at various locations, including crack houses and stash houses. Once the powder cocaine is converted to crack, it is broken into small pieces, or rocks, and distributed in the neighborhoods where it was produced. Moreover, many crack cocaine distributors are selling loose rocks of crack without packaging; the absence of packaging most likely indicates that the drug was recently converted.
Most of the marijuana available in the Atlanta HIDTA region is produced in Mexico or Canada, but some is grown locally at outdoor and indoor grow sites. Most cannabis cultivated in the Atlanta HIDTA region is grown at outdoor sites. Many outdoor cannabis grow sites are secreted by traffickers on public lands and parks to prevent the seizure of private property if discovered, and individual cannabis plants are often spread among other vegetation to hinder law enforcement detection. Severe drought conditions throughout the southeastern United States in 2007 caused a sharp decrease in the amount of cannabis cultivated and eradicated statewide in Georgia and North Carolina, as well as in the Atlanta HIDTA region. Despite a continued drought in the region, growing conditions improved in 2008, leading to increased cannabis eradication in 2008. Nonetheless, HIDTA officials report that fluctuations in the number of cannabis plants eradicated each year are frequently the result of available eradication resources and are not necessarily indicative of a change in the amount of cannabis cultivated.
Eradication data suggest that indoor cannabis cultivation decreased significantly in Georgia, including Georgia counties in the Atlanta HIDTA region. The number of cultivated plants eradicated from indoor grow operations in Georgia decreased from 9,585 plants in 2007 to 2,840 plants in 2008. (See Table 2.) Law enforcement reporting suggests that this decrease can be partially attributed to effective law enforcement investigations that targeted large Cuban DTO-operated cannabis grow operations in 2007. Small-scale indoor grow sites--producing quantities of marijuana for personal use and limited retail distribution--are operated by independent cultivators of all racial/ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans, Asians, Caucasians, and Hispanics.
Table 2. Cannabis Plants Eradicated at Outdoor and Indoor Grow Sites in Georgia and North Carolina, 2004-2008
Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, as of February 5, 2009.
Caucasian independent producers operate a limited number of small-scale powder methamphetamine laboratories in the Atlanta HIDTA region. Law enforcement officials report low to moderate levels of methamphetamine production throughout most of the Atlanta HIDTA region, largely the result of legislation that restricted precursor chemical sales. Methamphetamine laboratory seizure data suggest rising methamphetamine production throughout North Carolina, which may lead to increased methamphetamine availability in the Atlanta HIDTA counties in North Carolina in the near term. The number of reported methamphetamine laboratory seizures in HIDTA counties in North Carolina fluctuated from 2004 through 2008.10 However, the number of methamphetamine laboratories seized statewide in North Carolina increased from 70 laboratories in 2007 to 89 laboratories in 2008. (See Table 3.) This increase in methamphetamine production has been accomplished largely by individuals and criminal groups that circumvent precursor chemical sales restrictions by making numerous small-quantity purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine (often referred to as smurfing11) and by using the one-pot cook method, sometimes called the shake and bake method. (See text box.)
Table 3. Methamphetamine Laboratory Seizures in Georgia, 2004-2008
|Georgia counties in the Atlanta HIDTA (Barrow, Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry)||29||29||14||3||4|
|North Carolina counties in the Atlanta HIDTA (Durham, Johnston, Wake, Wayne, Wilson)||5||9||7||8||8|
|Atlanta HIDTA (all counties)||34||38||21||11||12|
|Georgia (all counties)||215||204||111||52||55|
|North Carolina (all counties)||241||174||88||70||89|
Source: National Seizure System, run date March 16, 2009.
One-Pot or Shake and Bake Methamphetamine Production
A one-pot cook is actually a variation of the anhydrous ammonia method of production; however, in this method a combination of commonly available chemicals is used to synthesize the anhydrous ammonia that is essential for methamphetamine production. Individuals using this method are able to produce the drug in approximately 30 minutes at nearly any location by mixing ingredients in easily found containers, such as a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, as opposed to using other methods that require hours to heat ingredients on a stove and result in toxic fumes, primarily from the anhydrous ammonia. Producers often use the one-pot method while traveling in vehicles and dispose of waste components along roadsides. Discarded plastic bottles may carry residual chemicals that can be toxic, explosive, or flammable.
Most of the methamphetamine laboratories seized in the Atlanta HIDTA region are those in which less than 2 ounces of methamphetamine can be produced per production cycle; however, the 2008 seizure of a large methamphetamine conversion laboratory and the seizure of large amounts of pseudoephedrine in the region suggest that large-scale methamphetamine production may be an emerging threat. The Mexican DTO-operated methamphetamine conversion laboratory was seized by federal and local law enforcement officers in Cobb County in December 2008 along with approximately 180 pounds of liquid methamphetamine. Law enforcement officers report that the laboratory operators did not use pseudoephedrine to produce methamphetamine at the laboratory; Mexican traffickers transported methamphetamine oil from an unknown location to the Atlanta laboratory for conversion into powder or ice methamphetamine. Moreover, law enforcement reporting indicates that some of the bulk pseudoephedrine obtained through large-scale pseudoephedrine smurfing operations in the southwestern United States is destined for Atlanta and that large quantities of pseudoephedrine tablets are also transported to Atlanta from the northeastern United States. For example, in December 2008, North Carolina law enforcement officers in Iredell County stopped a vehicle operated by Mexican nationals who were allegedly traveling from the New York/New Jersey HIDTA region to Atlanta. A search of the vehicle revealed 90,000 pseudoephedrine tablets wrapped in 42 separate packages that were further concealed in hidden compartments in the vehicle.
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DTOs use various means of conveyance to transport illicit drugs into and through the Atlanta HIDTA region, principally from sources of supply in the Southwest Border area and, to a lesser degree, Canada. DTOs most commonly use private and commercial vehicles to transport illicit drugs into and through the region along primary roadways; DTOs also transport drug proceeds back to source areas using the same conveyances and routes. Mexican DTOs commonly transport illicit drugs into the Atlanta HIDTA region from California, Texas, and Mexico in private and commercial vehicles along Interstates 10, 20, and 40; these DTOs also transport drug proceeds back to California, Texas, and Mexico using the same means. According to the DEA Atlanta Field Division, Mexican DTOs have altered their usual transportation routes on I-10 and I-20 in an attempt to avoid high enforcement efforts along those routes and are increasingly transporting illicit drugs from the Southwest Border area to Atlanta on I-40. Some Mexican traffickers are also transporting large amounts of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana directly to North Carolina on I-40 in an attempt to avoid law enforcement operations in the Atlanta area.
Traffickers also transport illicit drugs into the Atlanta HIDTA region through the U.S. Postal Service and package delivery services; additionally, they use couriers to transport drugs on commercial flights. Drug traffickers and some abusers frequently transport illicit drugs such as marijuana and CPDs through the mail and package delivery services. Various traffickers transport limited quantities of illicit drugs into the Atlanta HIDTA region on commercial airlines through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which is the world's busiest passenger airport and a major connecting hub serving numerous destinations around the world. In December 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials arrested a Dominican Republic national who was attempting to smuggle 7 pounds of cocaine through Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; the cocaine was concealed inside wooden clothes hangers.
Most methamphetamine laboratories seized in the region used pseudoephedrine with
the iodine/red phosphorus or anhydrous ammonia method of production.
11. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine smurfing is a method used by some methamphetamine traffickers to acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals. Methamphetamine producers purchase the chemicals in quantities at or below legal thresholds from multiple retail locations. Methamphetamine producers often enlist the assistance of several friends or associates in smurfing operations to increase the speed of the operation and the quantity of chemicals acquired.
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