Meth's impact had been front-page news in Oregon for years. In 2002, The Oregonian's editors decided to go after the story behind the story: How and why did the meth epidemic get so out of control? Suo was assigned to the investigation and the resulting series, "Unnecessary Epidemic," was published in 2004. Suo discusses what the project uncovered and how the key to the epidemic's history was to be found in meticulously examining numerous databases and the raw stats on arrests, rehab admissions and property seizures. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 7, 8 and 11, 2005.
… [In your reporting, what have you found to be the meth situation in the United States today?]
Meth has made a steady march across the United States. It started out being our problem on the West Coast, but it very rapidly became Colorado's problem and Arkansas' problem and Tennessee's problem, and now it's a problem in Georgia, and it's a problem in Virginia, and it's becoming a problem in parts of New York. …
… You have small-time meth labs popping up in upstate New York, upstate Pennsylvania. Vermont found its first meth lab last year. They have meth in Maine, New Hampshire. So really, there is no part of the United States that has been completely free of methamphetamine at this point. …
… Oregonians know very well from experience what the East Coast can expect from this drug, and it's not a pretty picture: very rapid escalation into high rates of crime; high rates of child neglect; and huge impact on the law enforcement community, on social services. It's not a question of if; it's a question of when. …
… [Until now, meth has remained a primarily Western problem. Has that had an effect on Washington's interest in dealing with it?]
Cocaine even today remains the dominant drug on the East Coast and in the South, and that really has shaped the political geography of methamphetamine. It's been really hard for Western lawmakers to get any attention for the problem because in the big population centers in the East, crack is still king. Particularly if you go to Washington, D.C., methamphetamine remains a very tiny problem, and you can walk up to people on the street there who still don't know what methamphetamine is. And in that environment it's difficult to get any attention to the problem.
For years, meth wasn't even on the radar screen on Capitol Hill. It's only been within the past year that there's been kind of a critical mass now that meth is in just about every congressional district. You have this growing clamor for legislation. But it's been here for 20 years, and [short of] some guy from Oregon standing up on the House floor calling for an attack on this scourge, this epidemic, it doesn't get much traction when most people on the floor of the House have never heard of methamphetamine. …
… [What impact has the meth epidemic had on daily life in Oregon?]
It's huge. It affects not merely the users, but it's [also] the leading cause of property crime. It's the leading reason why children are moved from their homes and sent into foster care. It's very hard to go to any part of Oregon and not experience the effects of methamphetamine on ordinary people. …
[One of the things you attempted to do in your series for The Oregonian was to quantify that impact. Tell me about how you originally began gathering data to show the effects of the drug on communities.]
Well, the original idea was something completely different from what we ended up with. We started out with this notion that we wanted to do a story about how Oregon's [drug] treatment system had this unique way of getting people into treatment and into recovery. So I started out by gathering numbers on the number of people entering treatment for different types of drug problems in Oregon, … in California, Washington and Colorado. And we started seeing some really interesting patterns emerge, things that we hadn't expected at all.
We gathered about a million different types of records -- treatment admissions, possession arrests, emergency room admissions, identity theft arrests -- and all of them really pointed in the same direction. You had this pattern of rising meth abuse in the early '90s, a big dip in the mid-90s, big increase and then another dip, and then an increase again across multiple states, across multiple indicators of meth abuse. …
Not a lot of really hard data exists about the meth epidemic, and not a lot of serious analysis has been done on the spread of methamphetamine. And this was really our first opportunity to show not only the scope of it, but the actual causes. And we were able to actually look at the interaction between supply and demand, which is sort of the fundamental factor that law enforcement is designed to get at in dealing with drug problems. We were able to show the fact that when drug prices go down, use actually goes up and vice versa. Nobody had ever looked at that before for the methamphetamine market.
[And what did you find when you started looking at Oregon's drug treatment system and the data you were collecting?]
Well, I had heard that Oregon had this unique treatment system, that by providing access to treatment for poor Oregonians, [it] had greatly expanded the number of people entering treatment. So I started out by gathering numbers on treatment admissions in Oregon over the 1990s, hoping to find that as the Oregon Health Plan kicked in you would see this big increase [in treatment admissions], as I had been told. And the truth turned out to be not quite that way. … You had a big increase in methamphetamine admissions but not huge increases in other drugs, and it didn't really seem to have anything to do with the Oregon Health Plan. … Why is it that methamphetamine is increasing and other things aren't increasing? And why is it that methamphetamine admissions are going down from time to time? I mean, there were no budget cuts to explain that.
And when we started bringing all these other states and compared it -- boom, boom, boom -- it's all exactly the same pattern across the West. Obviously something much bigger was going on than just the Oregon treatment system. …
[What did you do then?]
Well, the first thing I did was I plotted the number of treatment admissions month by month, quarter by quarter, over the 1990s for methamphetamine, and immediately you saw this huge rise and then a dip and a rise and a dip, and it was a really striking pattern unto itself. But then, … when you lay on top of that Washington, California, Colorado, you see exactly the same pattern: rise, dip, rise, dip. Just two mountains, two slopes, and no explanation.
You start seeing the same pattern state after state, and it became somewhat of an obsession to figure out what was behind that. … It was a lot like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he has this image in his head of this mountain and he doesn't know what it means, but he just feels compelled to draw it, to tear up his yard and build this giant mound in his living room. And ultimately that leads him to the answer. … I didn't get any aliens out of it, but I got some pretty interesting answers.
… I finally got a hold of this data on purity and matched it with treatment admissions, and boom, it was the same mountains. And it was what you would expect [from] a normal marketplace: that when the quality of the product goes down, people stop buying it as much. But I never heard of this happening with the drug market.
See Suo's chart matching the level of meth purity to the level of meth abuse on The Oregonian's Web site. (PDF file)
[How does the purity of a drug affect the market for it?]
A lot of studies have shown that when the purity of a drug goes down, use declines as well. People are less interested in using a drug. People who tried for the first time when it's weaker are much less likely to become addicted. Purity is the flip side of price, and when purity goes down, … it's just like when gas prices go down, people drive a lot more. It's not all that different, surprisingly, for illegal drugs. … When the purity goes up, if you pay the same price for a bag of methamphetamine, you're going to get high longer. It's cheaper to get high. And it's just like any other commodity: When the price goes down, you're going to do it a lot more.
[And so, meth is affected by market forces that can be influenced by law enforcement. I mean, people are reluctant to believe that law enforcement can have an impact of drug use, and yet, in the case of meth, it looks like they did.]
Well, we have a long history of spending billions of dollars on trying to interdict cocaine and trying to interdict heroin, and there haven't been really a whole lot of success stories in terms of raising the price or reducing the number of users through law enforcement. Meth is fundamentally different in that regard, and the reason is the way the drug is manufactured. The supply line is completely different from [cocaine and heroin]. This is a synthetic drug made using legal chemicals that are manufactured in very capital-intensive atmospheres in a limited number of countries in the world. …
Heroin and cocaine are agricultural crops, and just about anybody can plant a poppy field. The cultivation occurs across vast swaths of area in Asia and Latin America. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are sort of the equivalent of coca and poppies, their core raw ingredients are only made in a limited number of factories in the world using very high-tech equipment and very specialized expertise. And we know where all these factories are located, unlike the coca crops and the poppy fields.
Tell me about Gene Haislip, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Diversion Control, who tried to cut off the meth manufacturer's supply line of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. What was his vision?]
Gene Haislip was extremely zealous in the pursuit of his own vision of how drug control ought to be run, and he had this entirely unique idea for controlling drugs, which was to go after the chemical components that go into illegal drugs. This was a radical departure from anything the DEA had done before.
[And how did that work?]
In the early 1980s, this sleeping pill known as Quaalude was being widely abused throughout the United States. Quaaludes were being widely abused particularly by high school students throughout the United States, and most of it was being actually supplied not by the legal manufacture of Quaalude but by Colombian drug cartels, which were obtaining the raw ingredient, methaqualone, from a limited number of factories in Asia and Europe.
Haislip figured this out by flying down to Colombia and talking to the folks down there, tracking where the shipments were coming from. He actually went to those factories where the chemicals were coming from and said, "Knock it off." And lo and behold, it worked. Within about two or three years, Quaaludes had pretty much disappeared from the high school scene in the United States.
Everybody wonders where Quaaludes went. Well, Gene Haislip is the answer. Through his efforts, simply targeting the limited number of manufacturers of chemicals that go into Quaaludes, he was able to pretty much wipe out this entire drug.
Read more about the DEA's defeat of Quaaludes.
[And so the idea was that if this worked for Quaaludes it might work with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, is that right?]
Well, after the success of going after Quaaludes, Haislip had a pretty good idea that this might work for other drugs, particularly synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. So he sat down sometime in 1985 and started drawing up a plan to regulate all of the legally-traded chemicals that go into illegal drugs. …
The flip side of having these legally-traded chemicals susceptible to government regulation is that you have industries that also rely on these chemicals and have interests to protect. And when Haislip set out to start regulating these, he faced a whole slough of opposition from different quarters, not only the chemical industry but particularly the pharmaceutical industry, which had these very lucrative cold medicines that relied on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the raw ingredients of methamphetamine. And they absolutely did not what to have ephedrine and pseudoephedrine treated like prescription drugs. …
[Why not? How would it affect them?]
Well, the cold medicine industry in the United States is estimated to be about a $3 billion moneymaker for the drug companies, and pseudoephedrine is the leading ingredient in just about every cold product and allergy medicine. To say that you're going to make it more difficult for companies to sell this product really is not a very popular idea.
[What do the drug lobbyists say in defense of keeping these drugs available over the counter?]
Their argument is that consumers rely on these products and that you'll raise the cost of health care if you impose regulations and make it harder for people to just go into the grocery store and buy these things. And that's been the consistent argument over the past 20 years. …
[So what might have happened if Haislip's ideas had been implemented?]
This was really kind of the key decision point in the whole evolution of the meth trade. Meth was still a very small problem confined to the West Coast. … If all of Haislip's initial ideas had actually been implemented back in the 1980s when meth was a small problem, it may never have gotten out of hand. This is in many ways an unnecessary epidemic in the sense that the government has [had] numerous opportunities to stem the supply of the drug and has pretty much missed each of those opportunities along the way, both due to industry lobbying and due to its own wavering interest in the problem.
[And instead the meth problem begins to take off in the mid-'80s. Why is that?]
The Amezcua brothers revolutionized the meth trade. They turned it from a small mom-and-pop backyard operation to an industrial-scale production line. They made possible the super lab, which is capable of producing 1,500 times what an ordinary user can make for himself. They were the Henry Ford of the meth trade.
[What did they do that was so revolutionary?]
Their unique insight was that if you can procure massive quantities of the raw materials of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, then you've got a lock on the meth trade. In fact, you can build a market for methamphetamine in the United States. They discovered this unique niche that no other drug cartel in Mexico was looking at. And they discovered that they could create a whole new market for themselves in the United States for a drug that most people had never heard of. …
Suddenly when you have this huge surplus of methamphetamine being produced mainly in Central and Southern California, there's an ability to export it, and the supply just floods out to the East and to the North into Oregon, Washington and into Nevada, all the way across to Arkansas. … [And the users really respond.] Towns that had never heard of methamphetamine suddenly had their jails filling up with people who were committing crimes while high on meth.
[And so when you look at your chart, those two mountain peaks -- the surge in meth abuse -- that first peak is due to the Amezcua brothers?]
Well, when you're just looking at numbers on a chart, you see this huge increase in meth use in the early 1990s. Well, that's the Amezcua brothers. That's this huge increase in production that they've been able to achieve by going overseas to get ephedrine. … Well, it turns out that when you have this huge decline in purity of meth in the mid-1990s, that was the unraveling of the Amezcua supply line.
[How did their supply chain unravel?]
It happened almost purely by chance. The Amezcuas and their suppliers inadvertently had sent a load of ephedrine through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which was not a good idea, because the customs inspectors there very rapidly figured out that this was something fishy. …
Up until this point in time, the DEA, by its own admission, did not even really have a clue that the Amezcua brothers were obtaining hundreds of tons of ephedrine a year for the production of methamphetamine, much less how they were doing it. … All of a sudden, the DEA has all the cards laid out in front of it and pretty much can see from shipping documents the names of the companies that actually manufactured the ephedrine. And that enables them to actually go to these companies, go to the countries that regulate them, and say, "Knock it off."
[And what happened when the DEA began regulating these middlemen?]
In 1997, the DEA finally got the ability to regulate wholesale distributors of pseudoephedrine like they'd been trying to do for the preceding decade, [but] they really were not prepared to actually carry out that mission. People who were licensed to sell pseudoephedrine by the DEA were not typically shut down, even if their product ended up turning up in meth labs. The DEA would send out 20, 30, even 40 warning letters without ever shutting these people down. As a result of that, in a number of high-profile cases, people who have been licensed by the DEA ended up turning around and supplying millions of pills to the super labs in California.
[Why did the DEA not do a better job of regulating these middlemen?]
The DEA was clearly understaffed and ill-equipped, unprepared to deal with this onslaught of applicants of a somewhat dubious nature. And when it came time to yank their licenses, it didn't happen. The DEA suddenly had this instrument in its hands to be able to shut these people down, and more often than not, the DEA failed to do so.
[Didn't they see that regulation was working?]
If you look at this huge event that occurred in 1994 and '95, when the DEA essentially wiped out the world ephedrine supply that was going to the drug traffickers, you won't find that highlighted in any internal DEA documents … because the DEA was not aware of just how much success it was having. There was not a lot of money invested in this effort, and as a consequence, a lot of people slipped through the cracks.
[Then when they got a hold of the distributors and began shutting them down, it was too late, right?]
Ultimately the DEA gets a handle on these distributors that it has licensed and locks them up, but the amount of meth on the street is starting to rise again. And it's not really clear immediately how the traffickers are able to still obtain their materials. … It's the cops in California who finally figure it out. They start running across all these boxes of pseudoephedrine that have French writing on them and addresses in Quebec. Overnight, Canada's imports of pseudoephedrine go from something like 30 tons a year to more than 100 tons a year without a commensurate increase in the Canadian population or incidence of colds in Canada. There was a small number of pharmaceutical companies in Quebec and Ontario that were importing these huge volumes of pseudoephedrine, converting it to pills, ostensibly for use in the Canadian market, but really selling it out the back door to these smugglers who would bring it across the border into the United States.
[What was their excuse?]
By their account, they simply saw a huge demand for cold medicine that was going they knew not where. …
[And how did the DEA put a stop to this?]
The way they unravel the Canadian pipeline was deep surveillance. It was an amazing job actually. The [Royal] Canadian Mounted Police would pursue these loads of pseudoephedrine from Ontario, follow it all the way up to the border at Detroit and hand off the surveillance to the DEA, which would pick it up and follow it all the way across the country to California, where they in some cases actually were able to pursue the loads up to meth labs and then shut them down.
But in some ways, the more significant development was in 2003 when the Canadian government, somewhat at the behest of the U.S. government, enacted regulations to finally require licenses from these sellers of pseudoephedrine.
[But if the the Canadian supply line has been shut down, who's supplying the pseudoephedrine to the meth labs?]
Mexico is now importing roughly twice what it needs to meet the demands of legitimate cold sufferers, and the reason for that is because the excess is all being consumed by drug cartels that are converting it into methamphetamine.
[So isn't the solution to force Mexico, like Canada, to enact regulations and licensing for all of its psuedoephedrine manufacturers?]
Mexico may well get ahead of this problem in a year or two years down the line and greatly limit its pseudoephedrine imports, but there are a lot of other countries out there, and already we've seen spikes in pseudoephedrine imports in other countries, … like Argentina, Colombia, [and] in the East Indonesia, Iran, without any particular explanation. So there are plenty of opportunities for the cartels to leapfrog around.
[So what kind of effect does it have on the manufacture of meth when state legislatures put restrictions on the sale of cough and cold products containing pseudoephedrine ?]
Well, roughly 35 percent of the meth that is sold in the United States is actually manufactured using these over-the-counter products, sort of homegrown meth, but you've still got 65 percent that's manufactured by these large-scale Mexican organizations, and they don't need to walk into Wal-Mart to buy their pseudoephedrine. They acquire it in huge quantities from Mexico and overseas at the factory level, and cutting off the supply of pseudoephedrine to small-time meth cooks in America may well have the effect of only increasing the market share for the Mexicans.
That said, that doesn't mean that over-the-counter regulation is a bad idea.
[What are the advantages of over-the-counter regulation?]
Well, the main thing that over-the-counter regulation does or appears to have succeeded in doing already is reducing the number of small meth labs in the United States, and that's a huge benefit to local sheriffs' departments, which no longer have to spend all their time cleaning up meth labs. They can actually go out and fight crime. But in terms of reducing the level of addiction, you still have that supply out there that's coming in from Mexico.
… [How easy is it to get your hands on enough Mexican pseudoephedrine to make meth?]
… I went to a marketplace in Mexico City just to see what I could buy, and I went with another person who's Mexican, and I had her request boxes of pseudoephedrine [over the counter]. And pharmacies in Mexico are currently restricted to selling only three boxes at a time. We asked, "How many can you give us?" We went to three different places, and all of them told us, "We can give you as many as you want." …
[Why haven't the pharmaceutical companies created cold medicines that can't be turned into meth?]
There are a number of different cold medicines that cannot be converted to meth currently on the market. Pfizer recently introduced Sudafed PE, which contains phenylephrine, which can't be converted into meth, and it seems to be going over very well with consumers. …
The Warner-Lambert Company in the 1990s actually set out to develop a form of pseudoephedrine that can't be converted to methamphetamine, and they actually patented the product but never brought it to market because it would have been hugely costly to do so.
[How do you know?]
I was interested in the manufacturing process for pseudoephedrine, so I was kicking around through the U.S. Patent Office database and typed in "pseudoephedrine," and this popped up: "We've developed this form of pseudoephedrine that works just as well as the existing form of pseudoephedrine, but it can't be converted to methamphetamine."
[So why didn't they bring it to market?]
I talked to some of the people who were involved in the development and the initial testing of this product, and the goal of the research was essentially an insurance policy against a day when the DEA might decide to ban pseudoephedrine altogether. That threat went away, and in the meantime you face potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to bring this thing to market just to produce a social benefit that does not enhance the bottom line. It's a marginally more effective cold medicine that has a huge social benefit -- why pursue it?
[So now what's your long-term prognosis for pseudoephedrine?]
I think if the United States converts completely to phenylephrine, for example, suddenly you have a 50 percent drop in the world demand for pseudoephedrine. That may have a significant impact on what these producers overseas decide to do about [manufacturing] pseudoephedrine. They may themselves decide, "We're going to go to phenylephrine, too." And if that happens, you have very few options for the drug traffickers. They just can't build one of these factories themselves overnight. And even if they could, it wouldn't be too hard [for drug enforcement officials] to find, because you need hundreds and hundreds of tons of molasses to make pseudoephedrine. …
[So, in the meantime, is the challenge for drug enforcement officials to get Mexico to control their export of pseudoephedrine?]
Mexico is a huge challenge. I think the U.S. government should label corruption as their number one obstacle in all aspects of law enforcement in Mexico, but there are [the pharmaceutical] companies. This is a legal product that's sold by legitimate companies, and these legitimate companies have an innate interest in complying with the law. They're susceptible to regulation if you can get them regulated and get the laws enforced. …
[So is it the pharmaceutical lobbyists who are putting up barriers to regulation?]
You have two issues: You have the drug companies fighting regulation, and then you have the DEA, once it gets the regulation, in some cases failing to execute it. Over the years, the drug industry has put up barrier after barrier to regulate pseudoephedrine and ephedrine in the United States, and it's ultimately led to costly delays that have allowed the drug to spread.
The approach that the drug industry has advocated for 20 years is to wait and see: Wait until the drug traffickers have moved to this next product for their raw material. And as a result it's been an incremental process of regulating ingredient after ingredient, when Gene Haislip knew back in 1986 that you ought to regulate all of them. … Lobbying by the drug industry has hamstrung efforts to regulate the whole panoply of meth ingredients in every form. Instead you end up with a series of loopholes that have been closed one after the other, chasing after the traffickers as they exploit them. …
[So is the solution to the meth problem to fix the Mexican situation?]
Anyone in the DEA will tell you that the biggest problem they face in Mexico is corruption, and that's a very difficult problem to get your arms around. But if you look past Mexico, if you look to the limited number of sources where pseudoephedrine is manufactured, you can actually follow where it's going. I mean, we have a system for making sure that countries don't import more codeine than they need. We actually have an international system for estimating the legitimate demand, country by country, and capping the imports at that level. It's conceivable you can end up with a similar system with pseudoephedrine, but nobody's contemplated that so far. …