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National Drug Intelligence Center
National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment 2007
Methamphetamine production and distribution are undergoing significant strategic shifts, resulting in new challenges to law enforcement and public health agencies. Law enforcement pressure and strong precursor chemical sales restrictions have achieved marked success in decreasing domestic methamphetamine production. Mexican DTOs, however, have exploited the vacuum created by rapidly expanding their control over methamphetamine distribution--even to eastern states--as users and distributors who previously produced the drug have sought new, consistent sources. These Mexican methamphetamine distribution groups (supported by increased methamphetamine production in Mexico) are often more difficult for local law enforcement agencies to identify, investigate, and dismantle because they typically are much more organized and experienced than local independent producers and distributors. Moreover, these Mexican criminal groups typically produce and distribute ice methamphetamine that usually is smoked, potentially resulting in a more rapid onset of addiction to the drug. These numerous factors contribute to the significant threat posed to the United States by the trafficking and abuse of methamphetamine. In fact, according to National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) 2006 data, 38.8 percent of state and local law enforcement officials nationwide report methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat to their areas, a higher percentage than that for any other drug.
State-level precursor chemical controls have contributed to a sharp decrease in domestic methamphetamine production: Since April 2004, 44 states have restricted retail sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products to varying degrees, complementing already strong federal controls over wholesale precursor chemical sales. Retail sales restrictions--supported by sustained law enforcement pressure--have limited the amount of pseudoephedrine available to small-scale methamphetamine producers, resulting in a sharp decrease in the prevalence of small methamphetamine laboratories nationally. In fact, El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System (NCLSS) data show that the overall number of reported methamphetamine laboratory seizures nationwide decreased 43 percent from 10,212 in 2003 to 5,846 in 2005 (see Figure 1). Preliminary data indicate that this trend has continued in 2006, and the number of laboratory seizures will quite likely decrease further as more states implement similar restrictions--six more states and the District of Columbia are considering retail sales restrictions.
Precursor chemical restrictions and law enforcement pressure have forced most California superlabs to relocate: Restrictions on pseudoephedrine imports from Canada to the United States in 2003 resulted in an immediate and significant decrease in the number of reported domestic superlab (capable of producing 10 or more pounds of methamphetamine per production cycle) seizures (see Figure 2). Many of these laboratories--primarily operated by Mexican criminal groups--have relocated to Mexico, where bulk quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are more available. However, some Mexican criminal groups have remained in the United States to produce methamphetamine in superlabs, particularly in California, which accounted for 29 of 35 reported superlab seizures in 2005. Of the criminal groups that have remained in the United States, many have relocated their superlab operations to very remote rural areas, usually in the Central Valley region of California, in an attempt to decrease the risk of detection from sustained, intense law enforcement pressure. Although Mexican criminal groups have long produced methamphetamine on farms and in rural areas of California, this practice has increased since 2002 as law enforcement pressure and public awareness have increased in more populated areas. In fact, NCLSS data show that superlab seizures in urban areas are now somewhat rare, accounting for only 6 of 29 superlab seizures in California in 2005. By relocating most superlab operations to rural areas with less law enforcement presence, Mexican criminal groups have been able to maintain significant methamphetamine production in California.
Methamphetamine production in Mexico has increased sharply; however, chemical restrictions may render current production levels difficult to sustain: There are no widely accepted estimates regarding the amount of methamphetamine produced in Mexico; however, ample law enforcement reporting and drug seizure data at the U.S.-Mexico border indicate a significant increase in methamphetamine production in Mexico since 2003. In fact, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data show that seizures of methamphetamine (both ice and powder) along the Southwest Border increased from 2,706 pounds in fiscal year (FY) 2003, to 3,017 pounds in FY2004, to 4,346 pounds in FY 2005, and reached 1,988 pounds through the first 6 months of FY2006. Further production increases are unlikely in the near term, however, and sustaining the current high level of production in Mexico has become more difficult, since the government of Mexico recently reduced ephedrine and pseudoephedrine imports 40.8 percent from 224 metric tons in 2004 to 132.5 metric tons in 2005 (with a goal of 70 metric tons for 2006). Attempts to defeat the increasing chemical restrictions in Mexico will quite likely include routing chemical shipments through transit countries, particularly in Central and South America, for subsequent smuggling into Mexico.
Methamphetamine distribution by Mexican criminal groups is expanding to sustain markets previously supplied by local production, particularly in midwestern and eastern states: As methamphetamine production in small-scale laboratories has decreased nationally since 2004, Mexican criminal groups have expanded direct distribution of Mexico-produced methamphetamine, even in many smaller communities. For example, in midwestern states such as Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio, where methamphetamine laboratory seizures have decreased significantly--in some states by more than 55 percent--Mexican criminal groups have gained control over most distribution of the drug in these states. In fact, the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) reports that in cities such as Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa, where methamphetamine production and distribution previously were controlled by local independent traffickers, Mexican criminal groups, primarily distributing ice methamphetamine, have supplanted independent traffickers. Law enforcement reporting confirms a similar trend throughout much of the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Florida/Caribbean, Southeast, and West Central Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Regions (see Figure 6 in OCDETF Regional section). These groups pose an increased challenge to local law enforcement because they are often Mexico-based, well-organized, and experienced drug distributors who have been successful in blending into somewhat insular Hispanic communities or among Hispanic workers employed in the agricultural, landscaping, construction, and meat packing industries. The ability of Mexican criminal groups to continue the expansion of methamphetamine distribution into more communities in the eastern United States appears to be limited only by their capability to further expand methamphetamine production in Mexico.
Increased ice availability is most likely contributing to increased methamphetamine addiction: Since 2001 the availability of Mexico-produced ice methamphetamine--a form of methamphetamine that typically is smoked--has increased sharply in most U.S. methamphetamine markets. For example, CBP data show that seizures of ice methamphetamine along the Southwest Border increased from 260 pounds in FY2003, to 1,034 pounds in FY2004, and 1,423 pounds in FY2005. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), smoking methamphetamine may result in more rapid addiction to the drug than snorting or injection because smoking causes a nearly instantaneous, intense, and longer-lasting high. Although casual use of methamphetamine appears to be stable (see Appendix B, Table 1 and Table 2), national-level data show a rise in the number of methamphetamine-related treatment admissions and methamphetamine-dependent individuals nationwide (see Figure 3 and Figure 4), particularly since ice availability began to increase.1 In fact, even prior to the current influx of ice methamphetamine, users were increasingly choosing smoking as their primary mode of administration (see Figure 5). Increased rates of smoking ice methamphetamine, leading to increased rates of addiction, will further strain the resources of public health agencies, particularly drug treatment facilities in smaller communities.
1. Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) 2004 data are the most current and comprehensive data available. However, other drug consequence data such as Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Live and local drug treatment data reported by the Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG) are current through middle to late 2005 and indicate a similar trend continuing in 2005.
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