Journal No. 254 • July 2006
Methamphetamine Abuse: Challenges for Law Enforcement
by Dana E. Hunt
Fifty-eight percent of county law enforcement agencies
surveyed by the National Association of Counties in 2005
listed methamphetamine as the number one drug problem in
their area. States as diverse as Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont,
and Wyoming reported increases of more than 90 percent in
methamphetamine arrests in the prior year. Cheap, easy to
manufacture, and long lasting, methamphetamine has become
more popular than cocaine in some U.S. cities. And the problem
is no longer confined to discrete regions of the country.
Why is methamphetamine abuse such a growing problem, and
what should police and communities do to combat this threat?
The final report of a study funded by the National Institute
of Justice provides findings that State and local law enforcement
and public safety officials need to know to answer these
Statistics Belie the Extent of the Problem
Methamphetamine is a completely synthetic drug. Refinements
to inexpensive manufacturing methods in the 1980’s
and 1990’s led to abuse in epidemic proportions in
areas of the West and Midwest. By the millennium, the drug
had taken hold in the South and Midwest. While methamphetamine
use has been consistently high in States such as California,
Hawaii, Idaho, and Nevada,2
self-reported use among adults nationwide has risen from
just under 2 percent in 1994 to around 5 percent in 2004.3
Treatment admissions data reflect that the national rate
of treatment for methamphetamine abuse rose from 1 percent
in 1992 to more than 6 percent in 2003.4
But national data are misleading. While these figures reflect
increases at low levels on a national scale, regional data
gathered from clients entering drug treatment provide a
far more serious picture of the problem and chronicle both
its remarkable increase and its geographic movement.5
In 1992, no State reported that 10 percent or more of all
of its treatment admissions were for methamphetamine. By
2003, however, 35 percent of States reported more than 10
percent of all admissions were for methamphetamine, and
8 States reported an admissions figure of more than 20 percent.6
While the highest rates were found in Hawaii (45 percent),
Idaho (42 percent), and California (31 percent), Midwestern
States such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, and North
Dakota also saw large increases. Southern States such as
Arkansas increased their numbers tenfold or more.7
Regional differences in data on emergency room (ER) visits
for methamphetamine-related problems are similarly dramatic.8
While rates in some cities with high numbers of ER visits
for problems related to methamphetamine use have remained
unchanged or even declined somewhat, rates in other areas
have experienced enormous upswings since 1995. These include
Minneapolis (up 243 percent), New Orleans (up 194 percent),
St. Louis (up 97 percent), and Atlanta (up 67 percent).9
These local trends were mirrored in NIJ’s Arrestee
Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) system data. In 11 ADAM sites
studied in 2003, 25 percent of arrestees tested positive
for methamphetamine in their systems; by contrast, only
1 ADAM site had a proportion that high in 1996.10
A Specialized Approach
Everything about methamphetaminefrom its composition
to its manufacturing and distribution systems and the physical
effect it has on its usersis unique. And these distinctions
require that law enforcement officers adopt specialized
approaches to criminal investigations and arrests.
Unlike imported drugs such as heroin or cocaine, methamphetamine
is easy to produce domestically. It is synthesized from
precursor chemicals using relatively easy production methods
that are commonly available on the Internet or in underground
publications; anyone with high school chemistry experience
can “cook” methamphetamine. Many of the base
chemicals are household or farm products that are not feasible
to regulate. However, other elements (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine
products, and anhydrous ammonia) have come under serious
scrutiny, and Federal and State legislation now monitors
their sale and limits their availability.11
Unfortunately, as restrictions effectively close “Mom-and-Pop”
operationsalso known as small toxic labs or STLsthe
demand for methamphetamine remains. Law enforcement in many
areas reports increased evidence of organized drug traffickers,
largely from Mexico, covering the established demand.
Although the number of small “Mom-and-Pop”
labs is far greater than the number of superlabs (labs capable
of making 10 or more pounds of product at a time), the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) states that the bulk of
methamphetamine on the U.S. market comes from superlabs
concentrated in the Central Valley and southern areas of
California or in Mexico. Data show that the presence of
superlabs in the United States is expanding. Historically,
precursor chemicals were smuggled to superlabs in the Southwest
and California, but the current distribution is more geographically
dispersed throughout the country. DEA’s Clandestine
Laboratory Seizure System reports that the number of superlabs
seized in the western regions has actually declined by half
between 1999 and 2004, but has doubled in the South. And
while seizures of methamphetamine powder have declined in
some areas, officials report an increase in seizures of
the higher potency crystalline form not generally made by
Meth Labs Pose Dangers for Law Enforcement and Communities
The way that methamphetamine is manufactured and distributed
hinders law enforcement officers’ ability to locate
and shut down smaller labs. First, detection of these laboratories
is difficult due to their clandestine placement in rural
settings where law enforcement resources are limited. Second,
criminal investigations are also hindered by the fact thatunlike
sales of crack and heroinmost methamphetamine sales
take place indoors, out of the view of police surveillance.
Also, much of the methamphetamine produced in “Mom-and-Pop”
labs is consumed by the manufacturers or sold to a very
small group of friends or acquaintances. This close-knit
distribution system impedes law enforcement officers’
ability to use traditional investigative methods to infiltrate
a distribution group and identify offenders, target laboratories,
and take down operations.
Methamphetamine laboratories also pose a serious danger
to law enforcement officers. The use of toxic and combustible
chemicals makes executing search warrants at meth laboratories
a dangerous undertaking. In fact, reports of injuries to
responding law enforcement officers have almost doubled
from 2002 to 2003.12 Whether
the laboratory is raided by investigators or encountered
by accident during the course of an operation, first responders
and police agencies require specialized training and equipment.
Hermetically sealed hazmat suits, licensed contractors,
and specialized training in how to safely process the scene
are expensive resources that are in limited supply in local
law enforcement agencies.
Methamphetamine production and use also negatively impact
the quality of life in areas where it has taken hold. For
example, child protection service agencies across affected
areas are inundated with cases involving the removal of
children endangered by chemicals and toxic fumes. Child
neglect cases also abound in areas where methamphetamine
use and production exists.
Methamphetamine laboratories also contaminate surrounding
property. It is estimated that 1 pound of methamphetamine
produced in a clandestine lab yields 5 to 6 pounds of hazardous
waste.13 The resultant
environmental damage to property, water supplies, farmland,
and vegetation where labs have operated costs local jurisdictions
thousands of dollars in clean up and makes some areas unusable
for extended periods of time. Damage to some areas is extensive.
For example, U.S. Forest Service officers have encountered
tree “kills” in areas surrounding STLs, and
ranchers in Arizona have reported suspicious cattle deaths
in areas downstream from labs.14
These findings demonstrate that methamphetamine is not
just an issue for law enforcement to contend withit’s
an entire community’s problem.
The Methamphetamine Abuser: Not Your Ordinary Addict
Available data on typical methamphetamine users reveal
that most are white, are in their 20’s or 30’s,
have a high school education or better, and are employed
full- or part-time. Methamphetamine is used by housewives,
students, club-goers, truckers, and a growing number of
others. Almost as many women as men use methamphetamine
(55 percent male, 45 percent female.)
But a methamphetamine user is not the typical drug user.
That is because methamphetamine has acute toxic effects
that produce long-term problems for the user and those around
him/her. It is a powerful central nervous system stimulant
that promotes the release of neurotransmitters that control
the brain’s messaging systems for reward and pleasure,
sleep, appetite, and mood. However ingested (injected, taken
orally, or snorted), methamphetamine produces extended highs
and potentially agitated or overenergized states.
Chronic use of methamphetamine causes long-term alterations
to users’ brain chemistry and structure that result
in impaired memory, mood alterations, impaired motor coordination,
and psychiatric problems, even long after terminating use.
The short-term management of the agitated user at arrest
and the long-term health problems that jails and lock-ups
must deal with make methamphetamine users a serious logistical
and financial burden, particularly in areas with limited
manpower or resources.
Methamphetamineonce only a regional problem of the
West and Northwest has hit Midwestern and Southern
States hard and is moving east. Methamphetamine is cheap
and easy to manufacture, and profit margins are high. Its
powerful stimulant effect has made it more popular than
cocaine in many areas. It is a drug that appears to move
easily into new areas not typically associated with drug
trafficking, where smaller labs serve local groups of users.
As a demand or market is established, however, more organized
manufacturers and distributors are attracted.
Methamphetamine presents major challenges and resource
demands for State and local public safety and law enforcement.
The implementation of community resource coordination, joint
agency initiatives, and development of new skills and partnerships
are essential steps to take on the challenges presented
by methamphetamine abuse.
For More Information
- Pennell, S., J. Ellet, C. Rienick, and J. Grimes, Meth
Matters: Report on Methamphetamine Users in Five Western
Cities, Research Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Justice, National Institute of Justice, April 1999 (NCJ
176331), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/176331.pdf.
- Hunt, D., S. Kuck, and L. Truitt,
Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned, final report
to the National Institute of Justice, February 2006 (NCJ
209730), available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/209730.pdf.
- Ibid., 13 (Table 1.4).
- Ibid., 7 (Figure 1.1).
- Ibid., 12 (Figure 1.3).
- Ibid., 11. The Treatment Episode
Data Set (TEDS) represents information gathered from clients
at admissions to each episode of treatment in programs
across the country.
- Ibid., 13 (Table 1.4).
- Ibid., 14 (Table 1.5). The Drug Abuse
Warning Network (DAWN) is a system of data abstraction
from the records of a nationally representative set of
hospital emergency departments. DAWN provides area level
and national estimates of the number of emergency department
episodes that involve various drugs and the reason for
- Ibid., at 15, 16 (Figure 1.4).
- Tennessee, for example, found legislation
placing over-the-counter cold medications containing ephedrine/pseudoephedrine
behind the pharmacy counter reduced the number of “Mom-and-Pop”
or small local labs seized from more than 1,500 in 2004
to 955 in 2005, with the most dramatic reductions seen
in rural counties. (Data presented by Thomas Scollon,
Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, Nashville,
Tennessee, at the Evaluation of Task Forces Cluster Meeting
held at the National Institute of Justice in Washington,
DC, in January 2006.)
- Hunt et al., “Methamphetamine
Use: Lessons Learned,” 26.