LOS ANGELES (CN) – The RV tearing through the New Mexico desert in the opening to “Breaking Bad” introduced us to television anti-hero Walter White, a cancer-ridden school teacher transformed by the end of the series into a mostly heartless meth cook and criminal kingpin.
The image of actor Bryan Cranston’s character touting a pistol and dressed in white undies and a bright green dress shirt has endured, along with the concept of the mobile meth lab embodied in his Fleetwood Bounder – even as domestic production of real-life meth has become increasingly anachronistic.
“Folks, they see the show ‘Breaking Bad,’ and they still have this vision in their head that there’s meth labs all over the U.S., and they’re pretty rare,” said investigative journalist Scott Thomas Anderson in a phone interview. Anderson has written extensively about meth addiction, including the book “Shadow People: How Meth-driven Crime Is Eating at the Heart of Rural America.”
The reality is that homegrown meth labs have gone the way of the cable subscriptions and DVD box sets that were popular when “Breaking Bad” debuted almost a decade ago.
But that doesn’t mean meth production has dwindled. According to Drug Enforcement Administration officials, the Sinaloa Cartel is the leading player in a poly-drug trade that has largely shifted south of the border. Cartels produce and distribute massive quantities of meth into the U.S. through a route that starts in Southern California, moves northwards and then hooks to the east and into the heartland.
But while the nation and the media focus on the worsening threat of opioids and heroin, some law enforcement officials in Southern California see methamphetamine as a greater threat.
At a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting in May, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the opioid and heroin crises gripping eastern and northwestern cities had touched Los Angeles but that he was more concerned about meth.
“Methamphetamine is something that exacerbates folks that have mental illness issues, and it’s a combination that I think is something that we address every day,” Beck said. “It’s a very cheap, very long-lasting, very cumulative effect drug. It’s one that can have a hugely detrimental impact to somebody that deals with mental health issues. I think that it all ties into what we see and impacts what the department has to deal with.”
The LAPD exposed those impacts in its Use of Force Year-End Review for 2016. A toxicology analysis of suspects in officer-involved shootings revealed that nine out of ten people who died had tested positive for methamphetamine. The partial 2016 percentage represented a six-point increase compared to the four out of nine decedents who had tested positive for methamphetamine in 2015, the report states.
During an interview in City Hall, Police Commission President Matthew Johnson said that while he did not believe that methamphetamine was an issue unique to LA, officials had seen a “huge spike” in its use.
“It is definitely a crisis. It’s something that we’re very concerned about. It is the drug of the day, unfortunately. Drugs and crimes have gone together forever, and unfortunately the police are not equipped to deal with the underlying issues of drug abuse. The police end up having to deal with the consequences of drug abuse,” Johnson said.
In the 1990s, cartels gained a foothold in Los Angeles and the surrounding counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, with the rise of Inland Empire “super labs” capable of producing up to 50 pounds of meth at a time. Alongside them, so-called “mom-and-pop” labs thrived and fueled users, according to a DEA intelligence official who asked not to be named.
But the drug’s current stranglehold on Southern California can be linked to a well-intentioned law that stymied domestic meth production.
The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, enacted in 2006, regulated over-the-counter sales of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine, legal asthma and sinus medications that are also the key ingredients in a meth maker’s cookbook. The new rules included daily limits on purchases and other regulations that tracked sales at drug stores to ensure compliance. When it became harder to obtain precursor chemicals through over-the-counter products like Sudafed, the law squeezed domestic production and cartels stepped in to fill the void, experts say.
That’s when many of the homegrown labs went out of business and production shifted to Mexico.
Dr. Ralph Weisheit of the Criminal Justice department at Illinois State University said the law was effective but allowed the cartels to corner the market on a product that is easier to produce than plant-based drugs such as heroin, marijuana or cocaine, which are vulnerable to changes in weather.
“It’s not that lawmakers are stupid,” Weisheit said in a phone interview. “It’s not always easy to see how this new problem would pop up. But when you’re talking about drugs, you’re talking about two things working in concert. One is the business, the fact that it is enormously lucrative. But on the other hand, you have people who become incredibly dependent on them, and when you have those two things working together, you’ve got a market force.”
In the process, Mexican drug cartels infected rural America’s bloodstream, says Anderson. The journalist talked to hundreds of meth users and did not remember one who believed their drugs were homegrown.
“That law gave the Mexican drug cartels a financial stake in rural America that they really didn’t have before. It opened up a huge new market to them because it created this vacuum by knocking out all these domestic mom-and-pop meth cooks,” Anderson said. “These criminal organizations that had marketing veins all through urban America for 25, 30 years, they now were expanding those marketing veins into very rural, very remote areas that they never had any business in before.”
Before meth is loaded into hidden compartments in SUVs and shipped to Ohio or Montana, however, drugs are consolidated in Los Angeles, a trans-shipment hub for meth.
Just this month, the Justice Department announced that it charged 22 Sinaloa Cartel associates in Los Angeles as part of a two-year federal investigation. Prosecutors said that the associates had stored drugs in stash houses across the San Gabriel Valley and then distributed the narcotics across the United States. Proceeds were then sent back to the cartel in Mexico. As part of the takedown, authorities seized drugs with a street value of $6 million, including almost 290 pounds of methamphetamine, 280 pounds of cocaine, 30 pounds of heroin and 81 pounds of marijuana. They also seized 33 firearms, three vehicles with hidden compartments and $1.3 million in cash, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in LA said.
At the retail level, the prison gang the Mexican Mafia controls the flow of narcotics to a group of street gangs that have banded together under what is known as the Sureños alliance, according to the DEA intelligence official. Before arriving in the Los Angeles area, the cartels smuggle drugs into the U.S. using cartel-affiliated transportation companies and drug mules.
Seizures along the United States-Mexico border have swelled in recent years. In the DEA’s National Drug Assessment Summary published late last year, the agency said it had seized 16,283 kg (35,898 lbs.) of the drug in 2015, compared to 4,024 kg (8,871 lbs.) five years before. Sixty-eight percent of methamphetamine seizures in the calendar year 2015 happened in California, according to the summary.
Dealers sell the drug – which has become cheaper and remains highly potent – to users in its crystal form, under the street name “ice.” Wholesale prices of the drug are between $1,800 and $3,500 a pound. Ten years ago, meth would have sold for between $8,000 and $10,000 per pound, DEA spokesman Timothy Massino said.
Potency is in excess of 90 percent, the agency says, which means even a very small amount of meth will affect the user.
Psychiatrist Jeremy Martinez, director at the Matrix Institute for Addiction in Los Angeles, said he has seen an increase in methamphetamine users in emergency rooms, and “waves” or “surges” of meth use in different parts of the city, including Venice Beach and Skid Row. Matrix’s Mid-City clinic was seeing more meth users, too, he added.
A “traditional user base” in the Los Angeles area, combined with the city and surrounding area’s status as a distribution hub could explain more encounters with law enforcement, said the DEA official.
But Martinez suggested that meth users are more likely to encounter police officers than heroin or opioid users. Meth is a stimulant, while opioids and heroin are downers.
“I think it just comes to the attention of law enforcement more than other drugs because of the nature of what happens when you’re on a stimulant,” Martinez said in a phone interview. “When someone’s taking an opioid, they get slow and tired and tend to stay at home. Whereas when somebody’s high on methamphetamine, they’re more likely to be out on the street causing trouble.”
Martinez said meth users could appear mentally ill. They may experience drug-induced psychosis that includes delusions revolving around law enforcement. A user might believe that the FBI is following him. Martinez believes it is important for law enforcement to educate officers on how to handle people who appear to be mentally ill and get them proper treatment.
“It’s hard to tease out in some situations who’s a mental illness patient and who’s a substance abuse patient. So, I think that’s one of the big challenges,” Martinez said.
From his experience watching meth users, Anderson said those addicted to the drug might go three or four days without sleeping. Meth-induced psychosis is more likely if a user injects the drug or smokes it, he said.
“They’ve been putting nothing but Diet Coke and meth into their bodies for hours and hours on end, and some of them that are in that state do lose touch with reality and are experiencing various forms of hallucinations,” Anderson said. “They can be dangerous, and they can draw a lot of attention from the public in terms of folks calling the police.”
Chief Beck said other forces could be at play. He pinned some of the blame on the current malaise created after Californians passed Proposition 47 to reduce crowding in state prisons.
The law turned six drug and theft crimes into misdemeanors, which Beck said has stripped courts of the ability to force offenders into drug treatment programs.
“That’s a huge issue and it’s affected policing across California. There’s really no police agency that hasn’t seen an increase, and I think a lot of it is because we lose our ability to force addicts into treatment,” Beck said at the May 9 meeting at LAPD headquarters.
A user referred to a drug court for treatment has to be facing a felony conviction, and under court supervision, Martinez said. Because misdemeanor crimes are not eligible, he said the courts were limited in their power to enforce treatment. He has seen offenders addicted to drugs who were resistant to the treatment center’s drug court program, but then reaped the benefits of a prolonged period of sobriety and saw improvements in their lives.
“Now that Prop 47 has reduced the severity of any of these substance-possession crimes, it really ties the legal hands of the ability to mandate treatment,” he said.
In the 2016 National Drug Assessment Summary survey, 31.8 percent of responding agencies stated that methamphetamine is the greatest drug threat in their jurisdictions.
“The majority of responses, 34 percent, indicate that methamphetamine is the drug that most contributes to violent crime,” the summary states.
The threat was even more pronounced in the southwest region of the country, including Southern California. Seventy-one percent of respondents in the area rated meth as the greatest drug threat.
Anderson said he believes that meth is behind incidents involving violence, burglary rings, and identity theft. His neighborhood and law enforcement contacts would likely say that methamphetamine rather than opioids is the “main driver” for violent crime, he said.
“I don’t know if existentially this is an issue where our nation can only focus on one drug crisis at a time, but the meth crisis in America hasn’t gone away and hasn’t got any better just because a new crisis has risen up with heroin and opiates,” he added.