The battle against meth, to paraphrase one state official, is not nearly won.
While the prevalence of meth in Iowa has declined, demand for the highly addictive drug remains. In an example of supply-and-demand economics, Mexican drug cartels have entered the state with their own high purity meth.
The state’s meth precursor law, which banned the possession of substances such as ethyl ether and anhydrous ammonia when intended for the use of meth production, has led meth makers to devise a new method for making the drug using substances not included in the precursor law.
“The labs have just become smaller than 10 years ago,” explained Dan Stepleton, an Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement agent. “They’ve switched from the anhydrous production to actually making their own anhydrous. We’ve seen a big switch over to the one-pot era.”
“One pot” refers to the newer method of making meth – typically in something like a soda bottle – using relatively common ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, camping fuel and lithium batteries.
Despite being smaller than a traditional lab, they are no less dangerous, Stepleton said.
“It’s highly combustible in the way they are doing it,” he said. “We are seeing a huge number of properties burning up and defendants ending up in the ERs with burns on them.
"One out of every 10 cooks is probably going to have it catch on fire. If you cook long enough, you are going to be one of those people that have burn marks on you.”
Stepleton said meth makers are now only selling a portion of the drugs they produce. Much of it is going to employees of the producer, called smurfers, who attempt to skirt the pseudoephedrine law by going out and buying amounts of pseudoephedrine that aren’t enough to trigger the attention of law enforcement.
In turn, they get paid in cash or, as is often the case, the finished product.
The state also has seen a huge influx of high purity Mexican meth, commonly known as ice.
“Some of it is running 100 percent pure,” Stepleton said. “A lot of it is high 90s.”
That’s creating its own set of problems. Stepleton said meth users used to “one-pot” meth, which is typically only 15 to 50 percent pure, are taking the same amount of high purity meth and overdosing.
That meth is being moved in Iowa – and throughout the country – by drug cartels, Stepleton said.
“The Mexican cartels control the drug world right now, especially the ice world,” he said.
The rise of the cartels has corresponded with budget cuts in law enforcement. Stepleton said the state is working with fewer drug agents – who also have to deal with cocaine, heroin and other drugs – than in years past.
“We’re having to do a lot more with a lot less people,” he said. “These cartel people are very sophisticated in how they do things. Once in a while, we’ll luck out and we’re able to take off a small fraction of it.
"As soon as you take it off again, there’s someone else in their place.”
Few laws in the past decade have had a greater effect on public safety in Iowa than the state’s pseudoephedrine-control law.
Enacted in May 2005, the law put pseudoephedrine – a decongestant used to treat the common cold, sinus infections or allergies, and a key ingredient in methamphetamine production – behind the counter. Furthermore, the state established a tracking system to monitor the purchase of pseudoephedrine to prevent meth makers from hitting up various pharmacies and stocking up on the cold medicine.
To say the law was a success is an understatement. According to Steve Lukan, director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, the number of labs dropped from approximately 1,500 in 2004 to roughly 750 in 2005. Last year, there were fewer than 300.
Arrests for manufacturing have dropped from 618 in 2004 to 311 in 2011, the latest year data is available. Over that same time frame, arrests for possession fell from 1,782 to 992.
In 2004, 126,356 grams of meth were seized. Preliminary data for 2013 shows that amount plummeted to 21,249 grams.
“I think it’s proven its usefulness over the years,” Lukan said of the pseudoephedrine control law. “We’ve had a downward trend. We think the law has been a very effective tool in preventing labs and related problems with labs.
“Having said that, certainly the fight against meth is not over here in Iowa.”
Which brings officials to dealing with the one-pot method. It could be easier to address, and the Iowa Department of Public Safety has introduced a proposal to do just that. Amber Markham, policy advisor for DPS, said the legislation introduced last session would expand the state’s precursor law to include four substances used in the one-pot method including:
Markham said the proposal would be effective in combating the one-pot method, which continues to grow in popularity. Of the meth labs shut down in 2012, 61 percent were one-pot labs.
And Markham expects that number to be closer to 80 percent for 2013.
“Eighty percent of meth labs are using substances we can’t currently prosecute under the current precursor law,” she said.
Stepleton, of the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, said expanding the precursor law would give law enforcement a “big hammer” to hold over those involved in the meth-making enterprise.
“If you can start getting people with two or three of those precursors … it gives us more teeth,” he said. “A lot of times, by charging these people with felonies, we get these people to flip on where the lab is and it helps us take off more labs.”
Markham said the law passed in the Iowa House of Representatives last session but stalled in the Senate’s judiciary committee over concerns that someone could be prosecuted for possessing legal substances such as fertilizer or Coleman fuel.
“There’s just a lot of fear-mongering going on,” she said. “They’re not going to be arrested for having Coleman fuel in their garage. We’re going to try to disperse some of the misconceptions about the law.”
State Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said he isn’t sure what the future holds for the proposal.
“It sort of got lost last year,” he said. “I think we’re going to look at it again this year. The real answer is if the feds do this.
"The other problem is some of these things are legal now — you can buy them right off the shelf. That’d be a question of what we have to do with that.”
But, Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, the ranking member of the senate judiciary committee, said he spoke with fellow judiciary member Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and doesn’t see why the proposal shouldn’t make it out of committee.“I really don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t bring it through judiciary this year,” Schneider said. “We’ll hopefully get it out of here this year, or we’ll be able to explain why it didn’t move last time.”