DEA Congressional Testimony
July 12, 2001

Statement by:

Joseph D. Keefe
Chief of Operations
Drug Enforcement Administration


Before the:

House Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources

Date:

July 12, 2001

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.


Good Morning, Chairman Souder, Ranking Member Cummings, distinguished members of the Subcommittee. I am pleased to have this opportunity to appear before you today for the purpose of discussing our continuing efforts to address the dangers and concerns associated with Methamphetamine. Before I address this very important and timely issue, I would first like to preface my remarks by thanking the Subcommittee for its unwavering support of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and overall support of drug law enforcement.

Background:

Clandestine drug labs have been a concern of law enforcement officials since the 1960's, when outlaw motorcycle gangs produced their own methamphetamine in clandestine labs, and dominated distribution in the United States. Clandestine labs typically produce other types of illicit drugs such as PCP, MDMA, and LSD, but methamphetamine has always been the primary drug manufactured in the vast majority of drug labs seized by law enforcement officers throughout the nation. Since 1997, 97% or more of the clandestine lab seizures reported to DEA were methamphetamine and/or amphetamine labs.

Methamphetamine is, in fact, a very simple drug to produce. A user can go to retail stores and easily purchase the vast majority of the ingredients necessary to manufacture the drug. Items such as rock salt, battery acid, red phosphorous road flares, pool acid, and iodine crystals can be utilized to substitute for some of the necessary chemicals. Precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine can be extracted from common, over-the-counter cold medications. A clandestine lab operator can utilize relatively common items such as mason jars, coffee filters, hot plates, pressure cookers, pillowcases, plastic tubing, gas cans, etc., to substitute for sophisticated laboratory equipment. Unlike Fentanyl, LSD, or other types of dangerous drugs, it does not take a college-educated chemist to produce methamphetamine. In fact, less than 10 percent of those suspects arrested for the manufacture of methamphetamine are trained chemists, which may be one reason we see so many fires, explosions, and injuries involving clandestine labs.

The majority of these laboratories produce relatively small amounts of methamphetamine. In some respects, the methamphetamine problem is synonymous with the clandestine laboratory problem and this issue has been the focus of much media attention this past year. Although the methamphetamine problem and the clandestine lab problem are both part of the same drug abuse mosaic, in reality, they are somewhat different issues, which may require a different law enforcement response in order to successfully combat the spiraling increases in both arenas.

The threats posed by clandestine labs are not limited to fire, explosion, poison gas, drug abuse, and booby traps; the chemical contamination of the hazardous waste contained in these labs also poses a serious danger to our nation's environment. Each pound of methamphetamine generated in a clandestine lab can result in as much as five pounds of toxic waste, which clandestine lab operators routinely dump into our nation's streams, rivers, and sewage systems to cover up the evidence of their illegal operations. In addition, clan lab operators routinely show a blatant disregard for the health and safety of others as evidenced by the number of children who have been present at clan lab sites.

Because of the possibility of explosions and direct contact with toxic fumes and hazardous chemicals, law enforcement officers who raid clandestine drug labs are now required to take special hazardous materials (HAZMAT) handling training. The highly toxic and flammable chemicals involved make these rudimentary laboratories ticking timebombs that require specialized training to dismantle and clean. DEA is pleased to have certified thousands of state and local law enforcement officers in raiding and dismantling them and in providing funds for cleaning them up.

The size of lab does not matter when it comes to the danger level involved in a clandestine laboratory raid. The smaller labs are usually more dangerous than the larger operations because the cooks are generally less experienced chemists who often have little regard for the safety issues that arise when dealing with explosive and poisonous chemicals. However, the size of a clandestine laboratory can be a significant factor in the costs associated with the hazardous waste cleanup. Larger production laboratories usually have larger quantities of toxic chemicals, and therefore more significant hazardous waste disposal charges.

The face of methamphetamine trafficking has changed. Around 1994, for the first time in law enforcement history, Mexican-based drug trafficking organizations operating out of Mexico and California began to take control of the production and distribution of the methamphetamine in the United States. What was once controlled by independent, regionalized outlaw motorcycle gangs had now been taken over by Mexican-based criminal organizations and independent operators in Mexico and California. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are still active in methamphetamine production, but do not produce anywhere near the quantities now being distributed by the Mexican-based groups. This shift is due, in no small part, to the fact that Mexican-based methamphetamine trafficking organizations had ready access to the necessary precursor chemicals on the international market. These chemicals have fewer controls in Mexico and overseas than in the United States, and as a result, the Mexican-based organizations capitalized on this advantage by producing huge quantities of high purity methamphetamine in clandestine laboratories in both Mexico and southern California.

The dynamics of this shift are grounded in the resilience of Mexican-based drug trafficking organizations. The Mexican-based organizations had well-established, polydrug distribution networks, and were already transporting drug shipments to the United States on behalf of the Colombian cartels. Using existing proven trafficking routes, the Mexican traffickers began shipping methamphetamine along with the heroin and marijuana that was being produced in Mexico. Since they could make their own stimulants (methamphetamine), they would not have to share the profits and/or rely upon the Colombian-based traffickers, as they had done in the past when distributing the other noteworthy stimulant, cocaine. To further entrench themselves in the methamphetamine trade, these Mexican organizations developed international connections with chemical suppliers in Europe, Asia, and the Far East. With these connections, which were steadily nurtured and developed throughout the history of their drug trafficking and production, Mexican-based organizations were able to obtain ton quantities of the necessary precursor chemicals, specifically ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, to manufacture massive amounts of methamphetamine and amphetamine.

With the success of international efforts such as the letter of non-objection (LONO) program to control the flow of bulk ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, Mexican traffickers have turned to tableted forms of the precursors in recent years. In 1997 and 1998, the vast majority of methamphetamine labs operated by Mexican-based organizations, which were seized in California, obtained their precursor chemicals from domestic U.S. sources, such as chemical wholesalers, rogue chemical companies, and blackmarket sales of large quantities of ephedrine/pseudoephedrine tablets.

Another factor in the methamphetamine lab epidemic was the evolution of technology and the increased use of the Internet. While in the past, methamphetamine chemists closely guarded their recipes, today's age of modern computer technology has made chemists more willing to share their recipes of death, and allows them to disseminate this information to anyone with computer access. Aside from marijuana, methamphetamine is the only widely abused illegal drug that is capable of being readily manufactured by the abuser. A cocaine or heroin addict cannot make his own cocaine or heroin, but a methamphetamine addict only has to turn on his computer to find a recipe identifying the chemicals and process required for production of the drug. Given the relative ease with which manufacturers are able to acquire precursor chemicals, and the unsophisticated nature of the production process, it is not difficult to see why this highly addictive drug and potentially explosive clandestine laboratories continue to appear across America.

Price and Purity of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine prices vary considerably by region. Nationwide, prices range from $4,000 to $21,000 per pound at the distribution level. Retail prices range from $350 to $3,000 per ounce and $20 to $200 per gram.

According to law enforcement sources in California, the illicit market at the kilogram level distinguishes between methamphetamine that has been "cut" B usually with Methylsulfonylmethane (MSN) B and uncut methamphetamine. A kilo of cut methamphetamine sells for $4,000; an uncut pure kilo sells for $9,000.

Due to Federal, State, and local efforts to control access to precursors, prices of the key chemicals needed to manufacture methamphetamine have risen in recent years. Chemical prices on the "black market" vary greatly by region, but it is not unusual for traffickers to pay $3,000 or more for a case of 144 bottles of pseudoephedrine whose legitimate price is less than $600.

The average purity of DEA methamphetamine exhibits has declined from 71.9% in 1994 to 35.3% in 2000. A corresponding rise in amphetamine purity between 1995 and 1997 may be the result of traffickers responding to regulatory pressure exerted on distributors of precursors such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine by substituting the amphetamine precursor phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which is less strictly regulated in international commerce. Subsequent control measures by the U.S. and other countries with respect to the distribution of PPA have reduced its availability, and may have contributed to the decreased purity of amphetamine since 1997. Consequently, the national average purity for amphetamine has dropped from 56.9% in 1997 to 20.1% in 2000.

Current Emerging Trends: The Methamphetamine Situation Overview

Statistics indicate two distinct components to the overall methamphetamine problem. One involves the emergence of the Mexican-based traffickers, while the other involves the identification and clean up of the growing number of smaller producing laboratories. As a result of the emergence of the Mexican-based methamphetamine trafficking organizations as the primary sources of methamphetamine distributed within the United States, the DEA Special Operations Division (SOD) working in conjunction with the DEA Office of Diversion Control (OD), formulated a strategy in the summer of 1999, targeting these organizations' production, transportation and distribution components nationally.

The Mexican-based trafficking organizations have expanded their operations to numerous cities from California to the heart of the Midwest and beyond, and have placed organizational members within existing, established, law abiding Hispanic communities in these areas in an attempt to thwart local law enforcement efforts to identify and immobilize their organizations. Traditionally, local law enforcement efforts in these areas, while effective in the short run, have not attacked these investigations on a national scale as has been done with traditional cocaine investigations. As a result, an overall enforcement strategy to include production, transportation and distribution of methamphetamine/precursor chemicals, as well as rogue suppliers of diverted precursor chemicals, was developed and is currently being implemented.

This strategy also includes targeting command and control communication apparatus, identifying methods of narcotic proceeds transfers and asset seizures. As an example, local law enforcement in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area had been plagued by a Mexican-based methamphetamine distribution organization selling pound quantities of methamphetamine. Traditional law enforcement efforts and techniques produced periodic successes, but never identified nor eliminated the organizational structure. DEA initiated numerous Title III court authorized wire intercepts targeting this organization which resulted in the dismantling of the organization in its entirety and the identification of transportation and production components.

The following statistics provide an update on some of the latest methamphetamine trafficking trends.

  • Methamphetamine use and trafficking, traditionally concentrated in the western United States, has spread to the Midwest and now, to a lesser extent, the southeastern United States. The Montgomery, Alabama DEA office initiated a case in June 1999 which resulted in the arrest of two illegal alien Mexican males who had manufactured more than 80 pounds of amphetamines in a lab in Lee County, Alabama. The informant in this case advised that these "cookers" were dispatched from Mexico with specific instructions to immediately return to Mexico upon completion of the cook. This informant advised that the suspects stated, "it is easier to cook in the U.S. than to cook in Mexico and smuggle into the U.S.".

  • Mexican-based poly-drug trafficking organizations dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking using large-scale laboratories in Mexico and the southwestern United States to produce the drug. DEA estimates 70% to 90% of the US methamphetamine production and distribution is controlled by Mexican-based crime groups operating out of Mexico and California.

  • Clandestine laboratories in California continue to produce more methamphetamine than any other region, but the smaller laboratories, operated by thousands of independent US traffickers, are found in large numbers in the Midwest and growing numbers in the southeast United States.

  • The threat to public safety from fires, explosions, poison gas, and toxic by-products from clandestine methamphetamine laboratories appears to have increased in conjunction with the overall increase in lab seizures. The National Clandestine Laboratory Database at EPIC received reports of 37 explosions, 47 fires, and 43 incidents of explosives and/or booby traps at clandestine labs seized in CY-2000. Additionally, 841 children were encountered at clandestine lab sites in CY-2000.

  • 97% of the total clandestine lab seizures reported to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database in CY-2000 were methamphetamine and/or amphetamine labs.

  • Although the quantities of production were insignificant in comparison to California methamphetamine laboratory production, it is noted that in terms of numbers only--more clandestine laboratories were seized in Nevada, Arkansas, Utah, Missouri, Iowa, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Oregon in CY-2000 (per capita) than were seized in California. However, these labs were generally very small (ounce production capability) operations, and it is estimated that the combined production capabilities of all nine of these states would be less than the production of the California "super lab" seizures.

  • The large methamphetamine labs which are capable of producing over 10 pounds of product in a 24 hour period remain predominantly located in California. In CY-2000, a total of 126 of these so called "super lab" seizures were reported to DEA, 83 of them in California.

  • As chemical interdiction efforts and the "letter of non-objection" program continue to cut the supply of precursor chemicals to Mexican-based organizations, it appears that some non-Mexican groups are now attempting to fill the void in high purity Mexican-based methamphetamine with their own "super lab" operations.

Significant Accomplishments: Enforcement

  • The DEA is cautiously optimistic that precursor chemical controls, combined with aggressive local law enforcement efforts in chemical interdiction, have produced positive results. The average purity of methamphetamine exhibits seized by DEA has dropped from 71.9% in CY-1994 to 35.3% in CY-2000. The average purity of amphetamine exhibits seized by DEA has dropped from 29.2% in 1995 and 56.9% in 1997 to only 20.1% in 2000.

  • Arrests in DEA methamphetamine investigations increased in Fiscal Year 2000, to 7,519, a 21% increase over the 6,145 arrests in FY-1997, and a significant 46% increase over the 4,069 arrests in FY-1996.

  • The number of clandestine labs (all types of illegal drugs) seized nationwide by DEA has increased from 306 lab seizures in Calendar Year 1994 to 1,848 in CY-2000, a 504% increase.

Methamphetamine production continues to pose significant risks to public health and safety. Of the 6,835 methamphetamine laboratories seized in the United States in 1999, 204 were classified as Mexican-based Super Labs. The vast majority of methamphetamine produced within the United States is manufactured by numerous, independent, Mexican-based groups located primarily within California who distribute and transport the methamphetamine throughout the United States. These groups produce methamphetamine in California because of the availability of precursor chemicals, solvents, and reagents necessary for production within the United States as opposed to Mexico where these items are not as easily obtained.

The brokers of late stage solvents and reagents, primarily freon, caustic soda, and hydrogen chloride (HCL) gas also play an integral role in methamphetamine production. Pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter nasal decongestant, is the choice precursor used by all large scale methamphetamine production organizations to manufacture methamphetamine. Although pseudoephedrine is regulated, methamphetamine production organizations are successfully obtaining pseudoephedrine through grey-market distribution networks.

Finally, methamphetamine and amphetamine destined for the US and seized along the Southwest border have also risen since 1995. DEA's SOD supported methamphetamine investigations indicate that a large number of independent organizations produce methamphetamine within Mexico, primarily the state of Michoacan.

To address the methamphetamine problem, DEA's SOD has instituted a three-tiered domestic strategy to specifically target methamphetamine traffickers. This strategy targets California based, clandestinely produced Mexican-based methamphetamine organizations, traditional Mexican-based distribution organizations operating within the Midwestern section of the US, and also the illicit distribution of methamphetamine precursors utilized by brokers who facilitate the movement of those chemicals to traffickers from Mexican-based organizations.

Operation Mountain Express was a joint operation between SOD and the Office of Diversion Control and targeted traffickers of the methamphetamine precursor, pseudoephedrine. Existing regulations make it possible for DEA registrants to obtain multi-ton quantities of tableted pseudoephedrine from grey-market importers. As a result, California-based production organizations have been purchasing ton quantities of pseudoephedrine for use in methamphetamine production. Since January 2000, SOD coordinated a number of multi-jurisdictional investigations targeting pseudoephedrine traffickers, many of whom were of Middle Eastern origin. In a major effort, the illicit trafficking of pseudoephedrine was traced from bulk importers to rogue registrants and eventually to pseudoephedrine extraction laboratories. During the course of this operation, 11 wiretaps were conducted. Operation Mountain Express resulted in the arrest of 189 individuals and the seizure of more than 12.5 tons of pseudoephedrine, 83 pounds of finished methamphetamine, $11.1 million in US currency, and real property in excess of $1 million.

Operation Gas Mask is a recently completed investigation targeting Gilmore Liquid Air, a California based supplier of HCL gas to Mexican-based methamphetamine production organizations. This investigation resulted in the seizure of 10 operational methamphetamine Super Labs, 5 pseudoephedrine extraction labs, 497 gallons of methamphetamine in solution, 140 pound of finished methamphetamine, and assets totaling $1.5 million. During the course of this operation, 9 wiretap investigations were conducted. Operation Gas Mask resulted in the arrest of 48 individuals including Mexican-based laboratory operators, chemical brokers, the owner of Gilmore Liquid Air, and two suppliers of solvents and reagents.

The Impact of Enforcement on Public Health

The number of emergency room admissions for methamphetamine related cases had skyrocketed from around 4,900 in 1991 to approximately 17,700 in 1994, a 261% increase (DAWN). The number of methamphetamine related emergency room admissions dropped to around 16,000 in 1995, and approximately 11,000 in 1996. Admissions increased again to approximately 17,200 for 1997, but reversed and dropped to approximately 10,447 in 1999. Official DAWN statistics for 2000 are not yet available for public release.

While it is speculative to suggest that the seizure of precursor chemicals is directly related to the reduced availability of methamphetamine during a given time period, it does appear that precursor chemical interdiction and control, as well as law enforcement actions, may have some correlation with methamphetamine production and availability. This decline may also impact on the number of methamphetamine related emergency room admissions.

DEA Clandestine Laboratory Safety/Certification Training

In 1987, DEA created a special training unit for clandestine laboratory safety/certification training which is located at the US Marine Corp Base at Camp Upshur, Quantico, Virginia. This unit originated in response to concerns from DEA management that the agency's Special Agents and task force officers were being exposed to hazardous, toxic, and carcinogenic chemicals while executing raids on clandestine drug laboratories. Some DEA field offices, primarily in the state of California, were reporting that Special Agents and officers appeared to be suffering serious health problems as a result of both short and long-term exposure to the chemical and toxic fumes encountered when processing these drug laboratories. The US Code of Federal Regulations, 29 C.F.R. 1910.120, now mandates that all Federal, State, and local law enforcement officers must receive at least 24 hours of hazardous chemical handling training (specific Occupational Safety, Health and Administration (OSHA) standards for courses and equipment), prior to entering a clandestine drug laboratory.

The dangers associated with the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine are clear. Reports from DEA and state police records indicate that at least five or six methamphetamine producers are now being killed every year from explosions and/or fires in clandestine labs. Many more receive serious burns or develop serious health problems from clandestine laboratory explosions and fires. There have been reports of apartment complexes and a $3,500,000 hotel, which burned down as the result of drug lab "cooks" that turned into chemical bombs. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of injuries to untrained police officers that investigate and/or dismantle clandestine laboratories without utilizing the proper safety equipment.

However, the chemical and environmental hazards are not the only threat to law enforcement. Clandestine laboratory operators continue to pose a significant threat to law enforcement officers conducting operations. For example, police entry teams have come under fire while conducting enforcement operations at clandestine labs. In addition, laboratory operators have attempted to dispose of their chemicals by throwing them on the floors and walls, thereby creating a cloud of hazardous fumes for the entry team. In some instances, laboratory operators actually threw their chemicals at the entry team.

In response to this serious problem and to satisfy the training requirement established by OSHA, DEA has initiated an aggressive training schedule to increase the number of clandestine laboratory safety schools provided to State and local police throughout the nation. The DEA Clandestine Laboratory Safety Program conducts its safety/certification schools at the DEA Clandestine Laboratory Training Facility in Quantico Virginia. This specialized unit frequently conducts in-service training and seminars for law enforcement groups such as the Clandestine Laboratory Investigators Association (CLIA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). In addition, the DEA Clandestine Laboratory Training Unit provides police awareness training seminars to law enforcement organizations across the US, as well as the annual re-certification training which is mandated by OSHA regulations.

Students who graduate from the DEA Clandestine Lab School in Quantico, Virginia, are issued over $2,000 in specialized clandestine lab safety gear. Some of the items issued include: Level III nomex fire-resistant ballistic vests; nomex fire-resistant jackets, pants, and gloves; chemical resistant boots; air purified respirators; combat retention holsters; special flashlights; chemical resistant clothing for conducting hazard assessments and processing drug labs; and goggles to prevent eye injuries in the event a suspect throws acid or other dangerous chemicals at law enforcement personnel. Since 1997, DEA has conducted numerous clandestine laboratory schools and has certified over 3,500 Special Agents and State and local law enforcement personnel across the country.

Hazardous Waste Cleanup

Whenever a Federal, State or local agency seizes a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations require that agency to ensure that all hazardous waste materials are safely removed from the site in accordance with 40 CFR 262.

With regard to environmentally sound cleanup of clandestine drug laboratories, DEA has established hazardous waste cleanup and disposal contracts. There are currently 27 contract areas, served by ten contractors. These companies provide removal and disposal services to DEA, as well as State and local law enforcement agencies. As DEA has heightened its enforcement efforts concerning methamphetamine in recent years, there has been a corresponding focus on methamphetamine from State and local law enforcement agencies, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of clandestine laboratories seized. In fiscal year (FY) 1998, DEA was provided $14.6 million ($9.6 million in Asset Forfeiture Funds (AFF) and $5.0 million from the Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS)) to pay for clandestine laboratory cleanups. In FY 1999, DEA was provided $16 million ($6.9 million AFF, $5.0 million COPS and $4.1 million DEA Appropriated Funds) to pay for clandestine laboratory cleanups.

In FY 2000, DEA was initially provided $9.9 million ($5.8 million AFF and $4.1 million in DEA Appropriated Funds) to pay for clandestine laboratory cleanups. DEA did not receive any direct COPS funding in FY 2000. The FY 2000 COPS funding was earmarked to 16 "HOT SPOTS" areas. (Eventually, 12 "HOT SPOTS" grantees set aside funding totaling $3.8 million to fund cleanups within their respective areas. However, DEA did not receive the set aside funds until FY 2001.) In March 2000, funding for state and local cleanup was exhausted. As a result, DEA ceased State and local cleanups. State and local cleanups resumed in June 2000 upon receipt of $5.0 million in Supplemental Funding from DOJ. DEA subsequently reimbursed ten State and local organizations for cleanups performed between March and June of 2000.

In FY 2001, DEA was provided $34 million ($6.1 million AFF, $20 million COPS, $4.1 million in DEA Appropriated Funds and $3.8 million in HOT SPOTS set aside funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)) to pay for clandestine laboratory cleanups. The funding for clandestine drug laboratory cleanups from FY 1995 to present are shown below.

 
FY 95
FY 96
FY 97
FY 98
FY 99
FY 00
FY 01
Cleanup Funding 1
AFF
$2.0
$4.0
$6.8
$9.6
$6.9
$5.8
$6.1
COPS
 
 
 
$5.0
$5.0
 
$20.0
DEA Appropriated
 
 
 
 

$4.1

$4.1

$4.1
DOJ Supplemental
 
 
 
 
 
$5.0
 
BJA (Hot Spots)
 
 
 
 
 
 
$3.8
Number of Cleanups 2
AFF
325
738
1,383
1,302
1,015
1,157
499
COPS
 
 
 
608
2,832
3,304
3,800

1 Funding shown is in millions of dollars.

2 Cleanups for FY 01 are as of 5/31/01.

Conclusion

Methamphetamine and the volatile clandestine laboratories in which it is produced continues to provide a threat to drug law enforcement personnel as well as the citizens of our nation. The vast power and influence of international drug trafficking syndicates, particularly those based in Mexico, continues to grow. Their impact on communities around our nation is devastating.

Domestically based drug traffickers who engage in methamphetamine production and trafficking are also a major threat to our nation's stability. Since methamphetamine is relatively easy to produce, and with the proliferation of information on methamphetamine production available on the Internet, unscrupulous individuals will continue to take part in this illegal and dangerous enterprise. Traffickers only need $1,000 worth of chemicals to make $10,000 in methamphetamine in a trailer, a hotel room or house in any location within the United States.

To confront the methamphetamine threat, DEA will continue to work aggressively with our Federal, State, local, and foreign law enforcement counterparts to ensure a safe future for both our law enforcement personnel dedicated to addressing this dangerous problem as well as our citizens.

I thank you for providing me with this opportunity to address the Subcommittee, and I look forward to taking any questions you may have on this important issue

Home USDOJ.GOV Privacy Policy Contact Us Site Map

Home USDOJ.GOV Privacy Policy Contact Us Site Map