The Meth EpidemicView film
This is the transcript of the updated May 2011 broadcast. The transcript of our initial 2006 broadcast is available here.WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY
POLICE OFFICER: Police officer! Search warrant!
WOMAN IN TRAILER: I think meth has destroyed this community.
Det. Sgt. DAVID ANDERSON, Portland Police: From just one puff off a pipe, you can stay high for a day.
MAN: It doesn't take just a little piece of you, it takes all of you and everything good in your life.
ANNOUNCER: Methampetamine, the most addictive illegal drug in America. Since FRONTLINE first looked at meth back in 2005, new laws have been passed to control the key ingredients in the drug, which are also found in popular cold medicines. But now the meth cooks have found a way around the laws, and the pharmaceutical industry is fighting to stop new controls.
STEVE SUO, Reporter, The Oregonian: The cold medicine industry in the United States is estimated to be about a $3 billion money maker for the drug companies. And to say that you're going to make it more difficult for companies to sell this product really is not a very popular idea.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE, in association with The Oregonian, looks again at the meth epidemic to investigate a potential new cure and the battle raging over it.
ROB BOVETT, District Attorney, Lincoln County, Oregon: The truth is, the Oregon solution works. And for states that are struggling with that issue, the stakes couldn't be higher.
1st POLICE OFFICER: Oh. Yeah, that's meth.
2nd POLICE OFFICER: And your hypodermic needle that about punctured my arm fell out from your hat.
1st POLICE OFFICER: He's dealing. How many bags do we have?
2nd POLICE OFFICER: Four baggies.
1st POLICE OFFICER: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
NARRATOR: This is the story of an epidemic that has swept across America, an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse. It begins in Oregon, one of the places hit hardest by the epidemic.
1st POLICE OFFICER: This is 104.
2nd POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, 104.
1st POLICE OFFICER: Let's stop right here. Stop here.
2nd POLICE OFFICER: Knock, knock!
NARRATOR: When we filmed here in 2005, this trailer park in Portland was a favorite place for addicts to crash after days of speeding on meth.
1st POLICE OFFICER: Can I step in and talk to you?
WOMAN IN TRAILER: It gives you a euphoric rush. It's like your whole body tingles all over the place, and it's a good feeling— happy, giddy. But then when you come down off of it, then they start pulling— people start wanting more and they go crazy. And that's when they do— they lose themselves.
I think meth has destroyed this community. I think— in all reality, I think they need to take a bomb and blow it all up. It's that bad.
NARRATOR: In 2006, inspired in part by the reporting aired in this FRONTLINE, Congress mandated that cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, only be sold from behind the pharmacy counter. As a result, most states limited consumers to just three boxes per purchase. But now meth cooks are using a new recipe that requires as little as one box of cold medicine. They call the recipe ``shake and bake.''
ROBERT LUCIER: To shake and bake, you can buy any of the ingredients anywhere. Anywhere. You can get the pseudoephedrine at any cold medicine that has that ingredient in the pill. You'll add water. And then you'll add lye to that to make it hot. You'll add your solvent, whether it be mineral spirits, ether, Coleman fuel. And then you'll shake it up real good. And boom, you have dope.
NARRATOR: But former meth cook Robert Lucier says "shake and bake'' comes with new dangers.
ROBERT LUCIER: The whole thing is dangerous. There's nothing about it that's not dangerous. If your container can't handle it, it'll explode. It's like a small hydrogen bomb. It'll blow a hole from right through the floor, right through the ceiling, and then it'll just smoke everything out, turn everything black in a room.
ROB BOVETT, District Attorney, Lincoln County, Oregon: You're mixing things that are never designed to be put together, strong acids and bases, drain cleaners and engine starters, things like that, that are never supposed to be put into the same bottle. So it's incredibly dangerous to do. But when you're strung out on meth, you're willing to do a lot of crazy things.
NARRATOR: The human cost of the epidemic has been staggering. When FRONTLINE filmed here back in 2005, more than half of the inmates in Portland jails were meth users. Deputy Bret King's job was to book them.
Dpty. BRET KING, Multnomah County Sheriff: It sucks to be in jail, doesn't it.
YOUNG MAN: No, it sucks to be out in the streets and stuff.
Dpty. BRET KING: Yeah. What sort of changes do you notice have taken place with you because of your meth use?
YOUNG MAN: It was like everyone— oh, the whole world changed on me, everybody, all my friends, everything. Remember that Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you know, where they lay the pods out? And since I started doing meth, it was like everybody's not the same people anymore.
Dpty. BRET KING: Are they doing meth, too? Is that what you're talking about, or—
YOUNG MAN: Yeah. As I say— yeah. Yeah. And even— well, I don't have nobody—
NARRATOR: Shocked at the effect of meth on addicts who were being arrested over and over, King started collecting their booking photos.
Dpty. BRET KING: You see changes with certain people, especially— especially if they're using methamphetamine, that has a distinct deteriorating effect on somebody's physical appearance. One of the faces that really stood out to me was Theresa Baxter. She came in and she was quite visibly intoxicated by methamphetamine. She looked horrible. She looked at least 20 years older than she was. Her teeth were missing. And I looked back in her history, and at one time, she was a fairly attractive young woman.
[www.pbs.org: More about Theresa Baxter]
Some people I have in here over 100 times. I can look over a 10, 15, 20-year period and see how they've deteriorated, how they've changed. Some were quite attractive when they began to come to jail, young people who were full of health and had everything going for them, intelligent, you know, probably very skilled at what they did, or good students or good athletes. And now they're a shell of what they once were.
NARRATOR: At the Portland newspaper The Oregonian, reporters also began to focus on the impact of meth on the people of Oregon.
STEVE SUO, Reporter, The Oregonian: It's huge. It affects not merely the users, but it's the leading cause of property crime. It's the leading reason why children are removed 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.
NARRATOR: 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? Reporter Steve Suo was assigned to the investigation.
STEVE SUO: We gathered about a million different types of records— possession arrests, emergency room admissions, identity theft arrests. And all of them really pointed in the same direction.
NARRATOR: Suo transformed his data into maps. The darker a state's color, the higher its percentage of addicts. The maps told a chilling story. In 1992, only Oregon had enough addicts to be shaded black. By 1997, the number of addicts west of the Mississippi had risen dramatically. And by 2003, meth was starting to reach the East.
STEVE SUO: Oregonians know very well from experience what the East Coast can expect from this drug, and it's not a pretty picture.
NARRATOR: Portland cop Travis Fields spends his days on the lookout for meth addicts because they commit 85 percent of the property crime in the state.
Ofc. TRAVIS FIELDS, Portland Police Department: You can see a meth user from a mile away, once you've been working around meth addicts for eight years, just like they can see the police. There's auras around us, and they have those auras around them.
I've got a warrant. Turn around.
MAN ON BUS: Now, who are you? You are—
Ofc. TRAVIS FIELDS: I'm a police officer.
MAN ON BUS: I know, but how did you guys know I was on the bus?
Ofc. TRAVIS FIELDS: This guy's been arrested for assault, stolen vehicle, meth, meth, weapons, forgery counterfeits, burglary, burglary again, burglary yet again, robbery, commercial robbery with a knife, shoplifting, burglary, motor vehicle theft, aggravated assault with a knife, burglary, burglary.
NARRATOR: This garage sale is part of the meth crime wave. It's run by a meth dealer, who pays for whatever thieves bring him not with cash but with meth. Once they get high again, the thieves go back out and commit more crimes.
Det. Sgt. DAVID ANDERSON, Portland Police: Meth, since it's an ultra-stimulant, from just one smoke off the pipe, one puff off the pipe, you can stay high for a day. So you can break into somebody's house and transfer that property, like, to a place like this in hours. You're here and then you're gone.
POLICE OFFICER: [on the phone] My name is Jim Lawrence. I'm a detective with East Precinct Portland Police Bureau. You reported a burglary back on the 7th of July. And we are at a location this morning where we've executed a search warrant and I think we've recovered some of your property.
POLICE OFFICER: This yours?
BURGLARY VICTIM: That's mine. That's cool. My son will be happy his bed's back. A bunch of it's mine. I was in the midst of moving, so I was over there with people with trucks to load up my stuff, and it was gone. I mean, my refrigerator was gone. My dining room table was gone. My china cabinet was gone. They just backed up one day, and they did this in, like, a 10-hour stretch. That's about the time I was gone from the house.
POLICE OFFICER: All the way down on the ground. Stay down! Stay down! Police officers! Search warrant!
NARRATOR: But property owners are not the hardest-hit victims of the meth epidemic. That role belongs to the children and spouses of meth addicts.
POLICE OFFICER: You want to get a restraining order. And it's not because you don't love him—
POLICE OFFICER: --but he needs to stay away for a while. Thomas's conduct is going to make it so you don't even get to have your kids anymore.
NARRATOR: In 2005, 50 percent of the children in foster care in Oregon were there because of meth. Many of them were sent to see pediatrician Carole Chervanek.
CAROLE CHERVANEK, M.D., Child Abuse Examiner: A 9-year-old girl was brought to see me because her parents had been arrested for manufacturing methamphetamines in her home, and she was sent to foster care. I asked her, ``Tell me about drug use in your family.'' And she said, ``Oh, well, my dad, he taught me how to cook it.''
And she described in absolute detail the cooking process of methamphetamine, from the beginning to the end. She described how woozy she felt when the cooking was going on. She described that her dad took her finger and stuck it in this, quote, ``stuff at the end and made me taste it.''
She described graphic domestic violence between her parents, her father pistol-whipping her mother in the driveway until she was bloody. She described pornography running on the television all day long on, and sexual activity between herself and adults in the home when they were high on methamphetamine.
I do think of these kids as meth orphans because their parents have been stolen from them by this drug.
NARRATOR: With families and communities across the state being devastated by meth, Oregon began the nation's most innovative treatment program. But does treatment work for meth addicts?
Reporter Steve Suo tried to find an answer by comparing Oregon's program with those of other states. But what the numbers revealed was something quite different, and so unexpected that Suo thought he'd made a mistake.
In every state, the number of people entering rehab rose and fell in unison, even though the states had radically different programs. Then Suo compared the number of arrests and emergency room admissions in those states and he found the same pattern.
Over the years, there had been huge, simultaneous spikes in meth use, and then huge fall-offs. Suo became obsessed with figuring out why.
STEVE SUO: It's 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 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.
NARRATOR: The answers lay in the very chemistry of the brain of a meth addict. Suo learned about the neuroscience of meth from Dr. Richard Rawson of UCLA.
RICHARD RAWSON, Ph.D., UCLA: [in classroom] It has most of its effect via dopamine. Dopamine is the brain's primary pleasure chemical. When people do things that the brain wants to reward, it releases dopamine. This is the slide that we use to illustrate the principle that one orgasm equals two cheeseburgers. Probably not true, but that's what this represents. However, in terms of dopamine release, the mother of them all is methamphetamine.
You get an increase from this base level to about 1,250 units. It produces a tremendous release of dopamine. The brain isn't designed to produce this kind of a release. This really doesn't occur from any normally occurring rewarding activity. That's one of the reasons why people, when they take methamphetamine, they report having this euphoric experience that's unlike anything they've ever experienced.
Now, what happens when that occurs? When you take that drug and you put it in your brain over and over and over again because you like that spike of dopamine, it actually changes how the brain operates.
NARRATOR: What researchers have discovered is that meth creates its rush of euphoria by altering the part of an addict's brain that generates dopamine.
RICHARD RAWSON: They experience it as an inability to experience pleasure. Everything feels kind of gray and hopeless and nothing feels good. And so in their mind, the only way they're going to feel better is to take more methamphetamine, and hence you have relapse and people going back to using. It's a wonder any meth users ever get better.
[www.pbs.org: How meth destroys the body]
NARRATOR: The research showing that meth might be the most addictive drug there is suggested to Steve Suo that one of the few things that might explain the eerily consistent rise and fall in the number of addicts was if the meth itself were changing. For instance, what if the purity of the meth on the nation's streets had been rising and falling?
To find out if he was on to something, Suo gathered data on the purity of the meth seized by the government in various states over the years. Remarkably, the purity of the meth sold on American streets formed the pattern of the mountains.
STEVE SUO: It was really exciting. I mean, it was a perfect match, and you just don't often see that in data. These things were lining up on my screen, and suddenly, I had an explanation.
NARRATOR: Suo's ground-breaking discovery was that it was the change in the purity of the meth that addicts were using that had caused the rise and fall in the severity of the epidemic over the years.
But the solution of one mystery only produced an even greater one. What powerful forces could account for such dramatic changes in the purity of meth? Uncovering the answer would require a journey back in time through the halls of Congress, the boardrooms of the pharmaceutical industry, and the meth labs of the drug cartels and the biker gangs of the '60s.
["Born to Be Wild," 1968] Get your motor running, head out on the highway—
NARRATOR: With music heralding the birth of a wild new counterculture, a generation began experimenting with drugs, and amphetamine, or speed, became a favorite of truckers, bikers and college students. But in the '80s, a new kind of supercharged speed came on the scene, d-methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth.
ROB BOVETT, Counsel, Narcotics Enforcement Assn.: From a chemical prospective, methamphetamine is amphetamine with a methyl group, if you're interested in the science of it. But it's pretty much like a high-octane gasoline versus a low-octane gasoline. Methamphetamine, of course, is the high-octane version.
NARRATOR: Unlike other hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, crystal meth can be made from household products. The only essential ingredient is ephedrine, or its cousin, pseudoephedrine, found in many cold medicines.
MARC RIEDL, M.D., Asst. Prof. of Medicine, UCLA: When someone gets a cold, one of the things that happens is you get inflammation in the sinuses. What ephedrine does is basically shrink those blood vessels. There's less tissue swelling. And since your sinuses are a very small space, that shrinkage of the tissues actually allows people to breath better, and they're able to carry on with their lives instead of feeling like they have a sock in their sinuses.
It's a medication that, in some people, gives a little boost of energy. And so people see this as a way to, A, relieve symptoms, and B, maybe feel a little extra zip, similar effects to what you see with methamphetamine, but taken to the Nth degree with methamphetamine.
NARRATOR: With all of the ingredients in crystal meth cheap and easy to get, amateur cooks began mixing up batches of this highly addictive drug in kitchens across the West. But a kitchen cook can only produce a small amount of meth, so some in drug enforcement were convinced there was a chance to stop the spread of meth before it became an epidemic.
In fact, there was a man in Washington, D.C., who had a plan for putting the meth cooks out of business. His name was Gene Haislip, and in 1986, he was the number three man at the DEA.
STEVE SUO: He had this entirely unique idea for controlling drugs, which is to go after the chemical components that go into illegal drugs. This was a radical departure from anything the DEA had done before.
NARRATOR: Haislip's strategy for beating the meth cooks was inspired by his recent victory over another drug, quaaludes.
GENE HAISLIP, Fmr. Head, Chemical Control, DEA: A lot of people have forgotten about the quaalude problem, but it was a very big problem. At one time, it was as big as the heroin or cocaine problem. And people wonder why it's gone away. Well, it's gone away because we beat them.
NARRATOR: In the early '80s, Haislip discovered that quaaludes were made from a powder so chemically sophisticated that the Colombian cartels selling quaaludes couldn't make it themselves but had to buy it from legally operated factories. And so Haislip traveled around the world, convincing the government of every country with a factory that made the chemical in quaaludes to shut it down.
GENE HAISLIP: Well, it took some time, but in the end, the Colombians could no longer get their drug powder. They didn't know what to do. They gave it up. We eliminated the problem. We beat them.
NARRATOR: Just like quaaludes, the key ingredients in meth are so chemically sophisticated, they can only be made by a few large manufacturers. And so Haislip was confident that with a new chemical control law for ammunition, he could regulate those chemicals and beat meth.
GENE HAISLIP: I realized that with methamphetamine, we could turn this chemical control law into a rifle approach to the problem, not just a shotgun approach, because there were relatively few chemicals and they had relatively few legitimate uses. So this concept was especially well suited to attack a problem such as methamphetamine.
NARRATOR: In 1986, at Haislip's urging, Republican senator Bob Dole introduced a bill to require distributors of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to check the identities of their customers and to make their sales records available to the DEA.
But the bill immediately ran into trouble, for while nobody had been making much money selling prescription quaaludes, the pharmaceutical industry was making billions of dollars selling cold medicine over the counter. To industry executives like Allan Rexinger, Haislip and the DEA were out of control.
ALLAN REXINGER, Fmr. Pharmaceutical Ind. Lobbyist: They have a different way of thinking. They have a different mentality. They carry guns. They use these guns. DEA agents are killed. Now, in the jungles of South America, they need guns. But when you're working in the United States Congress, you don't need to carry a gun with you. And we felt that we were being treated just like a Colombian drug lord.
GENE HAISLIP: They live in the business community, where the name of the game is to make money and sell product. So they are always a little bit concerned about what DEA does in a situation like this, and sometimes more than a little bit. And they know who to talk to and who to go to in Washington. They're highly skilled, very well organized and very well funded, and they can be quite formidable.
ALLAN REXINGER: Our response was, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold it a minute, folks. Don't rush through this because if we do things too quickly, you're going to risk throwing the baby out with the bath water." Without this ingredient, we're not going to have all the products we need available to the American consumer.
Now, what would you do if there was a bill out there that would negatively affect your industry? It wouldn't make any difference if you were from the dill pickle industry or from the over-the-counter medicine industry, you would naturally do what you have to do. Quite frankly, we appealed to a higher authority.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, Haislip was summoned to a meeting of Reagan administration officials and industry lobbyists at the Old Executive Office building next-door to the White House.
GENE HAISLIP: It was in the Indian Treaty Room, a very beautiful room. When you have a meeting there, you feel like you're really having a meeting. It was a room full of people, including many of those lobbyists, I think, for that particular industry. But I wasn't concerned. I was loaded for bear, you may say. I had the evidence. I had the presentation. I knew what I was doing. And that's the kind of presentation I made.
NARRATOR: But the meeting did not end well for Haislip. The pharmaceutical industry made it clear to him that it wanted the bill amended to exempt cold medicine. And the White House made it clear that it expected him to work out a deal. Haislip decided he had no choice but to agree to the loophole.
GENE HAISLIP: I have to concede that, in retrospect, it was a mistake. But what we did then, we exempted from the law the chemical when it was sold and manufactured in the form of a pharmaceutical. I agreed to that, I have to tell you. We got our law, but we got it without something later we discover that we critically needed.
NARRATOR: Beating meth was not going to be as easy as Gene Haislip had hoped. Industry was opposed to regulation. Congress was far more worried about cocaine. And worst of all, the meth cooks were about to dramatically increase production.
ROBERT PENNAL, Fresno Meth Task Force: What happened was, right around 1989, we started hitting labs that were just huge. And it changed it forever because it became an industrial project and it was a factory.
NARRATOR: Bob Pennal was in charge of the Fresno meth task force. One of his jobs was to check out remote locations in California's Central Valley, to see if they might be home to meth super labs. On this day he spots an abandoned barn with a mobile home beside it, an ideal location for a lab, and he decides to take a closer look.
Using night vision goggles and infrared spotlights, Pennal and his agents plan to sneak up undetected to the barn and see if there's any sign that it's been used to cook meth.
BOB PENNAL: We're just going to be going in, basically, to take a look at this place. We want to see what kind of smells we get. We're going to use the IR spotlight. So Bruce will get in closer and we'll take a look around.
NARRATOR: Stealth is essential to Pennal because super-lab cooks can slip into an abandoned barn, whip up a batch of meth in under 48 hours, and then vanish. And if they suspect that Pennal has his eye on one of their favorite sites, they'll use a different barn for their next cook.
BOB PENNAL: We're going to go straight down that way right there.
NARRATOR: To counter the strategy of the meth cooks, Pennal and his men secretly plant hidden cameras at prime sites like this one.
BOB PENNAL: Bruce, let's kneel down. Kneel. OK. Can I see your night vision?
NARRATOR: In the 1990s, Pennal's cameras captured this super-lab cook on film. The containers are full of ephedrine being cooked into meth.
BOB PENNAL: A super-lab will turn around and manufacture anywhere from 10 to 100 pounds in a cook cycle. A 100-pound cook, you're up into, like, $4 million is going to be made off of that cook that you're doing.
NARRATOR: Beginning in 1989, four out of every five hits of meth consumed in the U.S. were cooked in super-labs in the Central Valley.
BOB PENNAL: Our methamphetamine started showing up everywhere. That's when we realized that we were being used, basically, as the industrial center. We were basically the Medellin. The way cocaine in Columbia was the Medellin cartel, now we were basically the suppliers for everyone in the United States, out of California.
NARRATOR: The drug kingpins who turned meth into big business were the Amezcua brothers of Mexico. But no supermarket in the world could sell the Amezcuas the tons of ephedrine their operation required. So where were they getting it? From the same factories where the American pharmaceutical industry bought the key ingredients in its cold medicines.
Twelve miles outside Nellore, India, stands the Krebs Biochemicals factory. In 2005, in this warehouse alone, there was enough raw material to make 10 million hits of meth. Krebs was one of just nine factories that manufactured almost all of the world's ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
ROB BOVETT, Counsel, Narcotics Enforcement Assn.: Methamphetamine, unlike most other hard drugs out there, is uniquely susceptible to supply-side intervention because it's not something you can grow. It's not something you get out of poppy fields or out of coca plants. It's something you've got to cook up in a factory. You've got to make this stuff.
NARRATOR: But while the U.S. government was spending billions trying to control heroin and cocaine, meth was such a low priority that no one was bothering to monitor who was shopping at the nine factories that make the key ingredients in meth.
Dr. R.T. RAVI, Managing Dir., Krebs Biochemicals: We at Krebs Biochemicals would have been much, much happier if only there was some guidance given by the DEA or the proper authorities in the United States about, ``These are the legitimate users. You are OK if you have any business dealings with these guys.'' Guidance in that fashion could have certainly helped us at Krebs Biochemicals in being perhaps a better citizen. Maybe we do not know how much of our material landed into the illegitimate hands. That could have certainly been prevented.
NARRATOR: During one 18-month period in the early 1990s, the Amezcua brothers purchased 170 tons of ephedrine from the nine factories and shipped it into the United States, where it was turned into two billion hits of meth. The meth on America's streets was suddenly cheap, plentiful, and most important, remarkably pure. And soon the addiction rate skyrocketed, creating the first great spike of American meth abuse.
STEVE SUO, Reporter, The Oregonian: 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. The unraveling of their supply line was the key to knocking that mountain down. It happened purely by chance.
GENE HAISLIP, Fmr. Head, Chemical Control, DEA: March of 1994, a plane landed in Dallas, Texas, a Lufthansa flight. Customs officer went aboard just to see what the cargo was and discovered that there were 120 of these cardboard chemical-type containers in there. And then he noticed that the company of origin—you could almost read it through the top cover, but it had been painted over. And he pulled a sample and he called the DEA, and next thing you know. It came up it was 3.4 metric tons of ephedrine destined for Mexico City that had landed in Dallas en route.
STEVE SUO: 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 from 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 and say, ``Knock it off.''
NARRATOR: With the cooperation of companies like Krebs, the DEA put an end to the Amezcua brothers' Indian connection. Soon the super-labs in California's Central Valley began running out of ephedrine, and the purity of the meth on America's streets began to plunge. The impact of that decline can be measured not just in statistics but in lives.
This is On Track, a meth rehabilitation center in Medford, Oregon. When we filmed back in 2005, 20 women were living here along with their young children.
RITA SULLIVAN, Director, On Track: Don't get impatient with yourself. Recovery from this drug is going to take years. And then for the rest of your life, you'll have to manage this every day of getting up and saying, "Today I'm not going to use." But I want you to know that the chemical reasons for this are real. And the depression, the anxiety, the feelings that you feel are a normal part of the recovery from this drug.
NARRATOR: When the purity of the meth on the street falls, not only do fewer first-time users become addicted, but those who are addicted find it easier to get clean. And that gives places like On Track and its director, Rita Sullivan, a chance.
In early 1996, meth purity was the lowest it had been in years. The Indian connection was broken, and Congress had finally given the DEA the power to regulate the ephedrine in cold medicine. But there was a catch. The pharmaceutical industry was willing to compromise on ephedrine as long as Congress didn't regulate pseudoephedrine, the drug from which it was making by far the most money.
When it comes to meth, the two chemicals are interchangeable, and the meth cooks soon began buying massive quantities of pseudoephedrine pills.
BOB PENNAL: We go to these lab sites and there's garbage bags and garbage bags of empty bottles. And they all have been razor cut at the bottom and they've dumped all the pills out.
NARRATOR: With super-lab cooks turning pseudoephedrine pills into meth around the clock, the purity of the meth on American streets began rising dramatically once more, creating the second mountain of meth abuse. Even worse, the number of states where meth use was reaching epidemic proportions was increasing. The epidemic had begun to spread from west to east, but it still hadn't reached across the Mississippi, and most politicians remained ignorant of the threat.
Rep. BRIAN BAIRD (D), Washington, 1999-11: When I founded the Meth Caucus five years ago, the people from the affected states, my co-founders, we knew about it. But as we'd talk to other people back here in D.C., they'd say, ``Methamphetamine? I don't know what it is.'' Or ``Pseudoephedrine? How does that relate to methamphetamine?'' They literally did not know. Back home, it was tearing families and lives apart. Here in Congress, it was as if there was no problem at all.
NARRATOR: Congress's attitude made controlling pseudoephedrine difficult. In 1996, when Gene Haislip pushed through a regulation requiring a license to sell pseudoephedrine pills, Congress suspended the rule at the urging of the pharmaceutical industry.
GENE HAISLIP: It's the first time in my entire career I ever saw a DEA regulation eliminated by an act of Congress because, essentially, the decision was made to give everyone a year to adjust to the new controls. Well, look, that gave legitimate people a year to adjust. But on the other hand, unfortunately, it gave the traffickers a year to adjust, and that's just what they did.
NARRATOR: The DEA was swamped by thousands of bogus companies applying for licenses, and short on staff, began issuing temporary permits. Before long, companies licensed by the government were making millions selling pseudoephedrine to the super-labs.
NARRATOR: The DEA effort to track down the bogus companies was halting and underfunded. But by the time the agency shut down the last of them, the purity of the meth on the streets had plunged.
GENE HAISLIP: We looked at the statistics on deaths and injuries — because my view has always been if you're having success, you're going to see a fall in deaths and injuries —and we saw that line dropping to the floor so beautifully.
NARRATOR: Once again, the meth cooks in the Central Valley began to grow desperate. Then Bob Pennal noticed something very unusual.
BOB PENNAL: Now we start finding these 60-milligram thousand-count white bottles with no markings on them. And you always had markings on them. You always had lot numbers. You always had some type of identifier. But now we had nothing, except on the bottom, there was some writing in French. We're finding them everywhere.
NARRATOR: It was two years before the DEA discovered that the mystery pills were being smuggled into the country from Quebec. Then in 2003, the DEA and the Canadian government uncovered the Canadian connection and shut it down.
BOB PENNAL: Then we started seeing ``smurfing.'' Remember how the Smurfs were little gatherers? We started getting calls from different retail stores that people were buying two or three packs — that's the most you can buy — and they went to one store, they bought three, they went to another store, bought three. We're seeing blister packs everywhere because they're sitting in the car, they're punching the pills out of the blister packs, they're putting them in the freezer bags and they're turning them over to chemical brokers.
NARRATOR: Smurfing, an act of desperation for the super-labs, had long been the main source of pseudoephedrine for kitchen meth cooks. To put an end to it, legislators in Oregon in 2003 resurrected the idea similar to what Haislip had proposed nearly 20 years before, requiring buyers of products with pseudoephedrine to register at the store counter.
But the pharmaceutical industry continued to oppose such steps. Steve Robins is an executive at Pfizer, the makers of Sudafed.
STEVEN ROBINS, Pfizer Consumer Healthcare: I think when we talk about methamphetamine, you have to do more on the consumption side — what is driving addiction and usage — than just the supply side. And so I think the answer that, ``Hey, if we got rid of this particular ingredient, wouldn't meth no longer be a problem?'' I don't agree with that argument. And I think we've always been opposed to that because we feel like that isn't fair balance in terms of access for the legitimate consumers versus those people who are using it for illicit means.
ROB BOVETT: I struggle with how they can sleep at night after having accomplished what they need to accomplish to protect profits over the health, welfare and safety of our community— in particular, drug-endangered children.
[www.pbs.org: What's happening in your state?]
NARRATOR: Rob Bovett was a leading supporter of the Oregon legislation to put cold medicines behind the counter.
ROB BOVETT: The DEA commissioned a study back in 2001 to look at the Portland-area convenience stores. And what that study concluded was that about 75 percent of the pseudoephedrine that was going into those convenience stores was being diverted to make methamphetamine. And the pharmaceutical companies are getting paid for those products, whether they're being diverted or not. It doesn't matter, they're still making their money.
STEVE ROBINS: There's been a lot made about how much profit was made by people who were buying this for illicit reasons. On the other side of that coin, we end up paying for the shrinkage— that is the theft, OK, that these smurfers do by going into stores and stealing product. And I will tell you, I'm not sure that anyone's done the analysis. And in the end, I'm not sure we made any additional money versus that product we had to actually replace because people had stolen it illegally.
NARRATOR: Finally, in 2004, Oklahoma passed a law moving pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Then Oregon followed suit, and some national chains took the same step voluntarily.
But the Mexican drug cartels had by then found a far better source of pseudoephedrine close to home. In 2004, Mexican pharmaceutical companies legally imported 224 tons of pseudoephedrine, twice as much as they were using to make cold medicine.
STEVE SUO, The Oregonian: Pharmacies in Mexico are currently restricted to selling only three boxes at a time. I went to a marketplace in Mexico City just to see what I could buy. I went with a Mexican citizen. And 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.''
NARRATOR: The cartels cooked the extra one hundred tons of pseudoephedrine into meth, then smuggled it like other drugs across the border into the U.S. As a result, the meth on American streets was suddenly as pure as it had ever been.
1st POLICE OFFICER: That is what we're seeing coming from Mexico, really good crystal.
2nd POLICE OFFICER: That amount of meth that we just got, if we had got that two or three years ago, we would've just about fainted. Nowadays, there's so much dope out here that that's commonplace. We get that amount off of one or two people every week.
NARRATOR: For the Mexican drug cartels, making meth in Mexico had an added bonus. They could use their traditional smuggling routes to bring meth to a huge new market, the eastern United States. The first to be affected were small towns throughout the Southeast, which suddenly found themselves in the midst of a meth crime wave.
ROB BOVETT, Counsel, Narcotics Enforcement Assn: Huge volumes of methamphetamine are being shipped up through the hub of Atlanta and are flooding the East Coast right now. And that's bad and good. That's bad for the East Coast because now they're feeling the meth epidemic for the first time. It's good for the West Coast in the sense that Congress is finally starting to pay attention.
NARRATOR: At the urging of its meth caucus, Congress in 2006 passed the Combat Meth Act, which mandated that pseudoephedrine be put behind the counter nationwide and that buyers register at the store counter.
Rep. BRIAN BAIRD, (D) Washington, 1999-11: Obviously, those of us who've had colds, we know how inconvenient it is and how unpleasant it is. But if somebody's addicted to meth, it's analogous to brain cancer. You are going to have your life ruined and probably taken, ultimately, by meth. So if people are inconvenienced by not being able to just go pick up their normal head cold remedy, we hope they'll understand that what we're trying to prevent is something far, far more destructive.
NARRATOR: In addition, the United States government, motivated in part by Steve Suo's reporting, convinced countries around the world to limit their imports of pseudoephedrine to just the amount they needed to make cold medicine.
Now, five years later, the positive impact of that action is clear, especially in Mexico.
STEVE SUO, Fmr. Reporter, The Oregonian: The Mexican government recognized it had a huge problem on its hands and they began estimating how much pseudoephedrine they actually needed for cold medicine, and they determined it was very, very little, so little that they decided to just ban the importation altogether. That had a dramatic impact on the ability of the cartels to get their pseudoephedrine. They really, really struggled.
NARRATOR: With the Mexican cartels unable to get their hands on pseudoephedrine, the potency of the meth being smuggled into the U.S. has plunged dramatically.
STEVE SUO: The cartels suddenly found themselves on the ropes, and you find them turning to rather desperate measures, turning to the old biker method of manufacturing methamphetamine. It's gotten— and that has continued on through today, to the point where 70 percent of the meth that is seized by the federal government these days is actually the old biker meth, DL methamphetamine, half as potent as the crystal meth that was on the street just five years ago.
And that's good news for people who care about rates of addiction because people who experience weaker meth are likely to use far less of it or— and potentially not become addicted.
NARRATOR: But just as they always have before, the meth cooks have found a new way to get pseudoephedrine. Today, former cook Robert Lucier is clean after spending time in jail. But not long ago, he was running a gang of ``super smurfers.''
ROBERT LUCIER: Other people go inside and purchase these items for you in small quantities, and you just take them around to all these different stores. And you just buy one or two boxes, you know, and you have four or five people, and you just go from town to town, loading up the trunk with boxes of pills.
NARRATOR: Meth cooks like Lucier then use the "shake and bake" method to turn the pseudoephedrine acquired from super-smurfing into extraordinarily pure meth.
ROBERT LUCIER: I didn't get my good from doing the drug itself. I got my good from making the best monster I could build. It wouldn't be long before the word to get out, ``Oh, I know where to get the bomb,'' you know? And pretty soon, it was gone.
NARRATOR: For nearly 30 years, the United States has been caught in a cycle of new laws, followed by new strategies by the cooks to get around them. But in Oregon, some of those who have experienced the worst of the epidemic say they've finally found the cure, to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug.
ROB BOVETT, District Attorney, Lincoln County, Oregon: Essentially, we've been putting Band-Aids on the situation for three decades now. And we got tired of putting Band-Aids on the situation and watching the smurfers and the meth cooks get around it, so we just simply decided to return pseudoephedrine to a prescription drug, which is what it was before 1976, and we ended the problem. We've essentially had a double whammy here in Oregon. The Mexican drug trafficking organization meth is weak and our meth cooks and smurfers can't make their own.
NARRATOR: In 2004, before the change in the law, sheriff's deputies uncovered 64 meth labs in Multnomah County, Oregon. In 2010, after the change, they found one. To deputy Brett King, who showed us these faces of meth years ago, what matters most is the number of lives saved.
BRETT KING: Five years ago, I looked into how many methamphetamine-related arrests we had coming into the jail, and I saw that about 27 percent of the arrests were due to methamphetamine or directly related to methamphetamine. Today, we're down to about 4.6 percent, and I can attribute 100 percent of that to the legislation around pseudoephedrine. The incidence of identification theft has dramatically dropped. Crime overall across the board is down. To the other states who are considering addressing methamphetamine in the same way Oregon has, I would ask them what's the hold-up?
NARRATOR: But with other states now considering adopting Oregon's approach, the pharmaceutical industry is spending millions of dollars lobbying against it. They favor an improved system of tracking purchases.
NARRATOR: In 2010, Linda Suydam, the president of a pharmaceutical industry trade group, testified to Congress.
LINDA SUYDAM, Consumer Health Care Products Assoc.: Our goal is to stop illegal pseudoephedrine sales while maintaining the over-the-counter access for legitimate customers. Maintaining access to non-prescription pseudoephedrine is important because for many consumers, it is the ingredient that works best for them. A prescription mandate would be more expensive for consumers—
NARRATOR: The industry's fight against regulation emphasizes the cost to consumers. But for proponents of the Oregon model, the costs of inaction are greater.
ROB BOVETT: The truth is the Oregon solution works. And for states that are struggling with that issue, as many are, you know, just to do the next Band-Aid is no solution at all. You know, real solutions are required because lives and families are at stake. The stakes couldn't be higher.
NARRATOR: No one knows better what those stakes are than those who have been addicted to meth.
ROBERT LUCIER: I can look back and see the total devastation of all that I created, and the lives affected, the houses that I destroyed. There's no— there's no coming back from that kind of— you know, you can't fix that. And as long as you're caught up in it, it's like— it's like a whirlpool. Once you get caught in the current, you just go around and around and around. And pretty soon, it just takes you under. And you've got to come through the other side. But the insanity's got to stop somewhere in order for those things to take place.
The Meth Epidemic
WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Pam Wise, A.C.E.
Michael H. Amundson
Fresno Meth Task Force
Portland Police Bureau Officers
Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
Fresno Meth Task Force
Chief John R. Batiste, Washington State Patrol
Battle Ground Pharmacy
Thugz Off Drugz
FOR THE OREGONIAN - "Unnecessary Epidemic"
Erin Hoover Barnett
EXECUTIVES IN CHARGE OF PRODUCTION
OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING
DIRECTOR OF BROADCAST
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ON-AIR PROMOTION EDITOR
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Entropy Media, LLC
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SENIOR EDITORIAL CONSULTANT
Louis Wiley Jr.
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A FRONTLINE co-production with Oregon Public Broadcasting
in association with The Oregonian
©2006 and 2011
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION and OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH-Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
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