Just as the country struggles to cope with the opioid epidemic, another epidemic brews beneath—that of methamphetamines.
While overdose deaths involving opioids have slightly decreased since the peak in late 2017, overdoses involving crystal meth are continually rising.
Nearly 14,000 people died of overdoses involving meth or other psychostimulants in the 12 months ending March 2019, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, based on preliminary data.
“In my home state of Montana, it is meth that’s destroying families and communities,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) during an Oct. 24 hearing on substance abuse treatment.
It used to be that meth was regularly coming out of “home labs” that were producing the drug with only about 25 percent purity, Daines said.
“It’s Mexican cartel meth” now, he said, with a purity of over 95 percent.
“It’s much more potent, the prices have come down because there’s so much more being produced, and the distribution certainly has become much more sophisticated,” he said.
Around 90 percent of meth used in the United States is produced by Mexican cartels, according to a 2016 report (pdf) by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, a research body created by Congress in 2000.
Meth confiscated at the border has increased threefold from fiscal 2014, reaching nearly 62,000 pounds in 2019, with still one more month of data to be included in the fiscal year.
Precursors From China
Meth is prepared from chemicals including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are found in some cold and cough medicines. The United States has clamped down on illegal use of the precursor drugs, but the cartels are mostly getting them from China, the 2016 report stated.
“Around 80 percent of precursor chemicals used in Mexican meth come from China. Precursor chemicals are increasingly being shipped from China to Mexico, where they are manufactured into meth, transported across the southern border of the United States, and brought into southwestern states—Texas, Arizona, and California—before being shipped across the country.”
The State Department has previously stated that Chinese criminal syndicates are using a tactic where they ship the drugs from China seemingly legally, and then divert the shipment en route to illegal meth producers.
Some experts have noted that China is using drugs as a form of warfare against the United States. They spoke specifically about fentanyl, the ultra-potent synthetic opioid involved in about 33,000 deaths in the 12 months ending March 2019.
“You could call it a form of chemical warfare,” Jeff Nyquist, an author and researcher of Chinese and Russian strategy, told The Epoch Times.
“It opens up a number of opportunities for the penetration of the country, both in terms of laundering money and in terms of blackmail against those who participate in the trade and become corrupt, like law enforcement, intelligence, and government officials,” he said.
It appears China’s meth precursor trade follows a similar pattern.
While cheaper meth from Mexico fuels the supply side, the opioid epidemic seems to be boosting the demand.
There are anecdotal accounts online of people using meth to beat withdrawal symptoms when trying to get off opioids.
“Using meth for opiate withdrawal is common practice among individuals coming off narcotics,” said Matt Finch, opiate recovery coach, on his website, OpiateAddictionSupport.com. In the same breath, however, he advised against it.
“The toxic drug actually exacerbates symptoms in the vast majority of people,” he said. “And even though meth does help with opiate withdrawal in some users, the cons far outweigh the pros.”
Some of the effects of chronically abusing meth include paranoia, anxiety, violent behavior, and brain damage (pdf).
More than a million Americans over the age of 12 were addicted to meth in 2018, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 460,000 received treatment for the addiction that year.
Meth addiction is currently treated by behavioral therapy.
“For example, the Matrix Model—a 16-week comprehensive behavioral treatment approach that combines behavioral therapy, family education, individual counseling, 12-step support, drug testing, and encouragement for non-drug-related activities—has been shown to be effective in reducing methamphetamine misuse,” states the National Institute on Drug Abuse on its website.
While opioid withdrawals can be mitigated by mild prescription opioids like methadone, there’s no such treatment for meth.
During the Oct. 24 hearing, Daines said he’s pressed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a medication-assisted treatment for meth.
But Surgeon General Jerome Adams, one of the witnesses, said that “unfortunately, the research out there right now is not promising.”
The NIH has spent millions and continues to spend more to develop such treatment, he said.
“But our best solution right now is prevention. It’s trying to get upstream, it’s trying to deal with these problems before they turn into the next wave of a meth epidemic.”