The Meth Epidemic [home page]
  • home page
  • meth in the body
  • Map: Meth at the State Level
  • The Faces of Meth
  • FAQs

This is the transcript of the original broadcast that aired in February, 2006. The 2011 version is also available.

The Meth Epidemic
Written and produced by Carl Byker

POLICE OFFICER: Police officer! Search warrant!

DEBBIE VICK: I was five-and-a-half months pregnant with my daughter, and I was shooting up the whole time.

Det. Sgt. DAVID ANDERSON, Portland Police: From just one puff off a pipe, you can stay high for a day.

WOMAN IN TRAILER: I think meth has destroyed this community.

ANNOUNCER: "Speed," "crank," "crystal"- by any name, meth is today the most talked-about drug in America. But there is an untold story about meth, a story of a fierce battle over the key ingredient to the drug, which is also the key ingredient in many very profitable cold medicines.

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: Yet Congress and many states are now considering action to put America's favorite cold medicines under lock and key.

Tonight FRONTLINE, in association with The Oregonian, investigates how meth use spiraled out of control and became the fastest-growing drug abuse problem in America.

1st POLICE OFFICER: 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.

1st POLICE OFFICER: 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 a disease that is sweeping across America. It begins here, in Portland, Oregon, where an epidemic is raging, an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse.

POLICE OFFICER: How long you been using meth?

YOUNG MAN: About eight years.

POLICE OFFICER: Eight years? How'd you first get into it?

YOUNG MAN: My mother introduced me to it.

POLICE OFFICER: Your ma? She was using? And how old were you

when you first used?

YOUNG MAN: Eleven, twelve.

POLICE OFFICER: Eleven or twelve years old?

YOUNG MAN: Because not once, but twice she chose her drugs over me.

POLICE OFFICER: You got any kids?

YOUNG MAN: I have one daughter.

POLICE OFFICER: How old's your daughter?

YOUNG MAN: Six, almost seven.


1st POLICE OFFICER: This is 104.

2nd POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, 104.

1st POLICE OFFICER: Stop right here. Stop right here.

2nd POLICE OFFICER: Knock, knock!

NARRATOR: This trailer park in southeast Portland is a favorite haunt of "couch surfers," addicts who have crashed 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: At the county jail in Portland, Deputy Bret King's job is booking new arrestees. More than 50 percent of them are meth users.

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.

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 the 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, the impact of meth on the people of Oregon has been front-page news for years.

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 have 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.

A lot of burglaries they're doing are just to get IDs, passports, tax information. No one's stealing your TV out of your house. I can just steal your identity, I can go buy myself a better TV.

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] JIM LAWRENCE (INTO 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.


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 sad 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-

WOMAN: Right.

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: 50 percent of the children in foster care in Oregon are there because of meth. Many of them are 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.

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, 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: Robert Pennal is in charge of the Fresno Meth Task Force. He's checking out a remote location in California's Central Valley to see if it might be home to a meth super-lab. Satisfied that the abandoned barn with a mobile home next to it is an ideal location for a lab, 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.

ROBERT 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.

ROBERT PENNAL: We're going to 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 sights like this one.

ROBERT PENNAL: Bruce, let's kneel down. Kneel. 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.

ROBERT 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.

ROBERT PENNAL: Our methamphetamine started showing up everywhere. That's when we realized that we were being used, basically, as the industrial center. We we're 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 this warehouse alone, there is enough raw material to make 10 million hits of meth. Krebs is one of just nine factories that manufacture almost all of the world's ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

ROB BOVETT, 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, 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. Currently, 20 women are in residence 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.

RITA SULLIVAN: So tell me, how can we, as a society, expect you to know how to treat that beautiful baby of yours if you were never given that yourself?

NARRATOR: Unlike most treatment centers, which have no place for kids, Sullivan enables recovering mothers to keep their children with them, believing they are the strongest motivation the women have to kick meth.

RITA SULLIVAN: And I think this should be the standard of care all over the world. In some cases, the biggest act of love is to relinquish your child if you're not in a position to care for them. But most of the time, the vast majority of the time, the children and the moms do better if they're kept together. So we need to rehabilitate whole families.

NARRATOR: Hard as it is to kick meth, On Track shows that it can happen. And it also shows that keeping meth purity as low as possible can make a big difference in people's lives.

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.

ROBERT 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. But when they dump a pill out, you know, they have to remove a binder, you know, which holds the pill together. Lots of times, that binder's cornstarch. So what they did is, they would use huge, huge containers full of denatured alcohol and they'd evaporate it off. Well, now we started having fires and explosions. Now we started getting ranches blowing up all over our state. And before you know it, 60 percent of the labs we were dealing with were through fires and explosions.

NARRATOR: To avoid the danger, the cartel bosses left the actual cooking to migrant workers, tempted by the chance to get rich quick.

ROBERT PENNAL: We raided a lab years ago with the Fresno Police Department. And when we hit this lab, it was at a ranch. And boy, I tell you what, it was a beautiful ranch, but it was just a farmhouse for a laborer. This guy had three, four kids. I can't remember. And they brought all the chemicals through the children's bedroom. And all the waste that was spilling was all in the carpet where the kids lived and slept.

We hit the place, and of course, the owner of the property pulls up. "What are you doing on my property?" "Well, we just raided a very, very large methamphetamine lab." I'll never forget this. "Well, he's one of the best employees I've ever had. He's worked with me for nine years. I just gave him a raise to $6 an hour."

And we're just looking at him and- and we walked the rancher over to the little farm laborer's truck, and in a paper sack is $27,000. And we tell him, "Well, you might have given him a raise to $6 a hour after nine years, but it appears the second job is paying a little better." And that's what it's all about. You know, you know it's wrong, the greed kicks in, now all of a sudden, there's more money than you can ever imagine. But what happens? That guy's life was changed forever.

NARRATOR: With migrant 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: 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.

GENE HAISLIP: They were primarily supplying tablets only to the traffickers. In fact, I recall one deal, it was a case - it was in Florida - where the traffickers actually asked this particular business, "Would you stop putting the binder in these tablets because it makes it more difficult for us to use them." So they were producing tablets without binder. All they had to do was crush them.

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 Robert Pennal noticed something very unusual.

ROBERT 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. It's almost like a newsletter is sent out to the whole network of cookers and they'd make this transition over all at one time.

NARRATOR: It was two years before the DEA discovered that the mystery pills were being smuggled into the country from Quebec. Just as in the U.S., bogus Canadian pharmaceutical companies were shipping unregulated pseudoephedrine to the meth cooks in California. Then in 2003, the DEA and the Canadian government uncovered the Canadian connection and shut it down.

ROBERT 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, Narcotics Enforcement Assn.: 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.

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: The 2003 Oregon bill to regulate pseudoephedrine was defeated. But in 2004, Oklahoma passed its own law, and some national chains began voluntarily moving the drug behind the counter.

For kitchen cooks, finding pseudoephedrine was getting harder. But for the Mexican drug cartels, there was a far more reliable source close to home. In Tijuana alone, there are now by some estimates 1,000 more pharmacies than sales to the public can support. Not coincidentally, the city is now believed to house as many as 1,000 meth labs.

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: In 2004, Mexican pharmaceutical companies legally imported 224 tons of pseudoephedrine, twice as much as they needed to make cold medicine. The extra 100 tons was cooked into meth, then smuggled, like other drugs, across the border into the U.S. As a result, the meth on American streets is as pure as it's 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: The consequences are sobering, for with meth being made in Mexico, the drug cartels are now using their traditional smuggling routes to reach the eastern United States. Among the first to be affected are small towns throughout the Southeast, which have become part of the meth crime wave.

Soon eastern states may face the same plight as western ones, where over 50 percent of those in prison are meth addicts. The price for their communities will include not just the property they will steal and the money spent keeping them behind bars, but the cost to their families and the children abandoned and abused.

CAROLE CHERVANEK, M.D., Child Abuse Examiner: They are having multiple traumatic events- physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, exposure to drug use and criminal behavior. And we are producing an entire generation of people who believe criminal behavior and activity and drug use is normal. That has just tremendous costs for our society if we don't do something drastically now to change that.

ROB BOVETT, 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: Members of both parties have begun to question the Bush administration's response to meth. In 2005, the deputy drug czar argued that the administration's strategy is not to focus on one illicit drug over another.

DEPUTY DRUG CZAR: We also have to deal with heroin in the Northeast, where they would laugh if you told them there was a meth epidemic. We have to deal with cocaine and gangs in Chicago, where they would laugh if you told them there was a meth epidemic. We have to deal with the fact that more kids are in treatment for marijuana than for all other drugs combined.

NARRATOR: That approach angers Congressman Mark Souder, in whose Indiana district there are prisons where 80 percent of the inmates are meth addicts.

Rep. MARK SOUDER, (R) Indiana: I believe the office of the drug czar has had a laughable position that meth is only a minor problem, it's not an epidemic, and it only represents 8 percent of drug use in America.

I believe the number is higher. I believe the impact is higher. I believe it's catastrophic in regional areas and that the statistical methods that they're using, focusing on youth, focusing on traditional busts, are wrong. And when you combine this together, it's led them to miss what is probably the biggest drug epidemic in the last couple years because their whole models and constructs are wrong.

NARRATOR: At the urging of its meth caucus, Congress is now considering the Combat Meth Act, which mandates that pseudoephedrine be put under lock and key in stores nationwide and that buyers register at the store counter.

Rep. BRIAN BAIRD, (D) Washington: 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. And 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: The act also calls upon the Bush administration to implement a worldwide strategy to control the flow of pseudoephedrine.

Rep. MARK SOUDER: The bottom line is what you have to do is get back to the source. There's basically nine major factories in the whole world that make the key ingredient in meth. It would seem that the logical way to tackle this would be to go there. They need to help us track what they're producing and where it's going.

STEVE SUO: 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. That same system could be implemented for pseudoephedrine.

NARRATOR: In November, Mexico admitted that drug cartels had artificially inflated demand for pseudoephedrine, and agreed to reduce imports to the level legitimately needed for cold medicine. It is the kind of hard-nosed measure that Gene Haislip has been advocating for 20 years.

GENE HAISLIP: The international part of this whole effort is absolutely critical. You've got to have a sort of a chemical control czar visiting all these countries, making friends, establishing connections, because people trust when they meet eye to eye, face to face- not once but frequently. Then people trust, then information flows, then cases are made, then things happen. Then that beautiful, magic line, the fall in deaths and injuries, one day, you see that happen.

NARRATOR: According to the United Nations, meth is today the most abused hard drug on earth, with its rising popularity around the world creating as many addicts as cocaine and heroin combined.

In America alone, there are 1.5 million addicts [CORRECTION: 1.4 million users], and rising. They are men and women whose lives have been shattered by the drug, like Debbie Vick. Her addiction tracks the history of the meth epidemic. She started using soon after crystal meth came on the scene.

DEBBIE VICK: I was five-and-a-half months pregnant with my daughter, and I was shooting up the whole time. And I just kept justifying that she'll be OK, God's not going to punish that baby because of my addiction.

NARRATOR: After her daughter, Makayla, was born without meth in her blood, Debbie swore she'd get clean. But after marrying another addict, Debbie continued to use, even as she gave birth to three sons.

DEBBIE VICK: If he hadn't been using and drinking, I think things would have been different. You can't be around anybody, or places, that do that, if you want to stay clean and sober. You can't. It was just a matter of time.

NARRATOR: Finally, in 1998, Debbie's meth addiction led to a charge of child endangerment, for which she was sent to prison. She began to fear she might lose her children permanently.

DEBBIE VICK: And then I went to treatment inpatient, and it was good. It was awesome. And I was going to make it. I was going to stay clean. I was going to get my kids back. I was going to leave my husband. I was going to make it. I was going to be one of that 22 percent that never goes back.

I wasn't one of that 22 percent. When I overdosed on March 29, `01, on crystal meth and I woke up to the EMTs and cops and sirens and everything everywhere- and that was the last time I had my children, everything that mattered to me.



Carl Byker

Mitch Wilson

Pam Wise A.C.E.

Kate McMahon

Will Lyman

Christopher Hedge

Jack Combs
Kevin Doyle
Peter Stolz
Girish Thakur
Rob Wilson

Michael H. Amundson

Jim Sullivan

Randy Layton
James WilderHancock

Neil Blume

Portland Police Bureau Officers
Multnomah County Sheriff's Office
Fresno Meth Task Force

Fresno Meth Task Force
Muse Family
Vick Family
The Oregonian

"Unnecessary Epidemic"

Stephen Engelberg

Tom Maurer

Steve Suo
Erin Hoover Barnett
Jim Barnett

Lynne Palombo
Margie Gultry
Kathleen Blythe

Fredrick D. Joe

Steve Cowden
Derrick Quenzer

Sarah Smith

David Davis
Jack Galmiche



Tim Mangini

Chris Fournelle

Missy Frederick

Steve Audette

Michael H. Amundson
John MacGibbon

Chetin Chabuk

Melissa Roja

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Diane Buxton

Andrew Ott

Michelle Wojcik

Peter Lyons

Kate Femino

Jessica Cashdan

Gabrielle MonDesire

Kirsti Potter

Lisa Palone-Clarke

Eric Brass
Jay Fialkov

Adrienne Armor

Mary Sullivan

Tobee Phipps

Bill Rockwood

Kate Cohen
Sarah Ligon

Sarah Moughty

Catherine Wright

Sam Bailey

Kito Robinson

Robin Parmelee

Ken Dornstein

Sharon Tiller

Marrie Campbell

Jim Bracciale

Michael Sullivan

Louis Wiley Jr.

David Fanning

A FRONTLINE co-production with Oregon Public Broadcasting
In association with The Oregonian

(c) 2006

FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.

ANNOUNCER: There's more to explore on FRONTLINE's web site: a state-by-state map where you can learn about the meth situation in your own state, answers to frequently asked questions about methamphetamine, charts tracking the epidemic and rise and fall of the drug's purity, a closer look at how meth works on the brain, plus special video and reports, the chance to watch the program again on line, and join the discussion at

FRONTLINE's The Meth Epidemic is available on videocassette or DVD. To order, call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY PBS. [$29.99 plus s&h]

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The Park Foundation, committed to raising public awareness.

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.

Thank you.


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

home + introduction + site map + watch online + meth in the body + faqs + interviews
map + update: u.s. strategy + update: mexican meth + producer's chat + join the discussion
timeline + readings + links + the oregonian series + teacher's guide
dvd & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy + FRONTLINE home + WGBH + PBS

posted feb. 14, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright ©2006 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation