Meth in the heartland: One town’s story


I have written about how methamphetamine transits the globe and how it ultimately finds it way to users in the San Francisco Bay Area. The methamphetamine story is varied and complex. It will take a great deal of elucidation to get a handle on it. Nick Reding’s book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, goes a long way toward doing this for the heartland. Redding does a great job of going back to his roots in the mid-West to describe how methamphetamine has become such a popular and, in many ways, essential drug in rural and small town America. The book is well-researched and contains many personal anecdotes regarding how this drug is affecting the people using the drug, their families and the communities to which they belong.

The book is difficult to put down. I highly recommend reading it. If you are not so inclined or need more reason to invest your time, Kevin Nenstiel, an author and English professor living in Nebraska, has done an excellent synopsis and review of the book. You can find it here.

From Global to Local: Methamphetamine in California Cities


Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant. It can be ingested, inhaled, smoked or injected. When taken, it initially provides an intense sensation of euphoria, increased motor activity and a decrease in appetite. Methamphetamine can be psychologically addictive and episodes of high risk sexual and violent behavior are not uncommon. With sustained methamphetamine use a person can begin to experience psychotic symptoms such as delusions and tactile hallucinations.

Global Methamphetamine Trafficking

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014 World Drug Report, North America (Mexico, the United States and Canada) accounts for almost two-thirds of methamphetamine seizures worldwide while another third is confiscated in East and South-East Asia. Mexico, the United States, China, Thailand and Iran, in that order, report the highest amounts of seizures. There has been a noticeable increase in methamphetamine trafficking from 2011 to 2012 in West and Central Africa and Oceania, although the quantities of methamphetamine are much smaller than in the top four countries. There has also been an increase in seizures in Australia, Brunei, Darussalam, Cambodia, Singapore and Viet Nam. For the first time, a seizure of methamphetamine was reported in Tajikistan. In a national survey in Pakistan, 19,000 people (0.02 percent of the population) reported that they had used the drug in the past year. Generally, there are growing methamphetamine markets in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Methamphetamine is increasingly becoming a global presence. (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Seizures of Amphetamine-type Substances (including methamphetamine and amphetamine and excluding ecstasy-type substances) Source: UNODC Annual Report questionnaire data, 2012.

Methamphetamine Production in the United States and Mexcio

There had been a decrease in “home grown” labs in the United States after controls on the sale of the methamphetamine precursors, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, were instituted during the 1990’s. Further controls were instituted with the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. However small labs have continued to produce methamphetamine through a process called “smurfing” whereby a number of people purchase ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products up to the legal daily limit and then pool these supplies to manufacture methamphetamine. These labs can be found throughout the United States but are largest in number and most problematic in parts of the midwest extending down into the the southeast region. (Figure 2.) Most of the methamphetamine produced in this manner is consumed locally.

Figure 2. Total of All Methamphetamine clandestine Laboratory Incidents, Calendar Year 2012. Source: El Paso Intelligence Center, National Seizure System, Query Date, January 27, 2013.

Presently most of the methamphetamine in the United States is manufactured in Mexico (Figure 3.) despite restrictions that were instituted there in 2005 on the sale of epinephrine and pseudoepinephrine and improvements in these controls in 2009. Perhaps in response to these efforts, researchers have found that alternative precursors are also being used to manufacture a less potent form of methamphetamine in what is called the P-2-P method (phenylacetic acid > 1-phenyl-2-propanone > methamphetamine). It is estimated that up to 70% of methamphetamine being sold in the United States is now in this less potent form.

Figure 3. Methamphetamine Transportation Routes. Source: U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2011.

Forty-four tons of methamphetamine were seized in Mexico and 29 tons in the United States in 2012. Half of the methamphetamine seizures in the United States occur at the Mexican border. In 2012 the number of methamphetamine seizures at the border exceeded the number of cocaine seizures according to the United States Border Control.

Methamphetamine Problems in the Lower 48

According to the Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG), in the first half of 2013, methamphetamine indicators* were among the most concerning if not the most concerning of all drug trends in 11 out of the 20 areas that are monitored across the United States. There had been a general trend downward in methamphetamine use in the United States in the mid 2000’s, however methamphetamine remains an increasing problem in most areas of the west and in certain areas of the midwest and south. The northeast has relatively low rates of methamphetamine problems.(Figure 4.)

Figure 4. Greatest Drug Threat Represented Regionally As Reported by State and Local Agencies. Source: National Drug Threat Survey, 2009

Methamphetamine in the California Corridor

The CEWG monitors drug indicators in the Western Region. This includes California which historically and generally has been experiencing the highest level of methamphetamine problems in the United States. San Diego (41.7%), San Francisco (37.8%) and Los Angeles (32.8%) have the highest level of methamphetamine seizures as percentage of total drugs seized among all areas of the United States. Most of the methamphetamine coming into the United States from Mexico comes in over the southern border of California. In 2014 many of the methamphetamine seizures, other than those at the border, have been along the route 99 corridor from Bakersfield to Sacramento (Figure 5.) and the route 101 corridor north of San Francisco to the Oregon Border.

Figure 5. Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Source:National Drug Intelligence Center, 2007.

Community Epidemiology Work Group Area Reports

In their January and June 2014 meeting the CEWG representatives reported on the methamphetamine trends in each of their respective areas.

San Diego Area
Methamphetamine was identified as 41.8 percent of all drugs identified in the first half of 2013 compared with 37.7 percent of total drug reports a year previously putting methamphetamine first among all drug reports. Admissions with methamphetamine as the primary drug of abuse were 29 percent for the first half of 2013 which was an increase from 2012 levels (25 percent). Urine testing positive for methamphetamine among arrestees rose from 26 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2012 for adult males and from 39 percent to 47 percent for adult females.

San Francisco area
Methamphetamine was identified as 37.8 percent of all drugs identified in the first half of 2013 compared with 32.1 percent of total drug reports a year previously putting methamphetamine first among all drug reports. Admissions with methamphetamine as the primary drug of abuse rose from 2012 to the first half of 2013 putting methamphetamine a close fourth among all treatment admissions just below cocaine admissions. Methamphetamine admissions have been increasing as cocaine admissions have been decreasing and will exceed cocaine admissions if this trend continues.

Los Angeles area
Methamphetamine was identified as 32.8 percent of all drugs identified in the first half of 2013 compared with 25.2 percent of total drug reports a year previously. This placed methamphetamine first among total drug reports. Admissions with methamphetamine as the primary drug of abuse were 18.8 percent for the first half of 2013 which was an increase from 2012 levels (16.9 percent). Methamphetamine was ranked first among illicit drugs for calls to the poison control system for Los Angeles county. Coroner toxicology cases with methamphetamine detected were projected to increase in the reporting period from 560 cases in 2012 to an estimated 687 cases in 2013.

In Conclusion

Methamphetamine trafficking is a global phenomenon, however most of the supply is trafficked to the United States from Mexico and into California. Consequently, the criminal justice and treatment systems in California are experiencing a rise in methamphetamine-related problems. Despite interdiction and prevention efforts, California has increasingly become ground zero for the many harms related to methamphetamine.

California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris. March 2014. California and the fight against transnational organized crime. Retrieved from:

Community Epidemiology Work Group. January 2014. Epidemiologic trends in drug abuse: Proceedings of the Community Epidemiology Work Group, Highlights and Executive Summary. National Institute of Drug Abuse. Retrieved from:

Drug Enforcement Administration. (2014). 2014 National drug threat assessment summary. Retrieved from:

Drugs: A Continuously Updated Display of Major Drug Interdictions. Retrieved from:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2010). World drug report 2010. Retrieved from:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). World drug report 2012. Retrieved from:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2014). World drug report 2014. Retrieved from:

United States Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center. (2011). National drug threat assessment, 2011. Retrieved from:


*The CEWG is a network of researchers from sentinel sites throughout the United States. It meets semi annually to provide ongoing community-level public health surveillance of drug abuse through presentation and discussion of quantitative and qualitative data. CEWG representatives access multiple sources of existing data from their local areas to report on drug abuse patterns and consequences in their areas and to provide an alert to potentially emerging new issues. Local area data are supplemented, as possible, with data available from federally supported projects, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Drug Abuse Warning Network(DAWN); Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS); the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) II program; and the DEA, Heroin Domestic Monitor Program (HDMP). This descriptive and analytic information is used to inform the health and scientific communities and the general public about the current nature and patterns of drug abuse, emerging trends, and consequences of drug abuse.