A decade after limits on the sale of cold-medicine ingredients used to cook methamphetamine curtailed its production in clandestine labs across Minnesota, meth is back.
Appetite for the highly addictive stimulant never went away, and its renewed popularity is fed by a flow of cheap imports from Mexico.
In 2014, the amount of meth seized by Minnesota law enforcement spiked to 226 pounds, a nearly 40 percent increase in one year, and the highest in more than 10 years.
The number of meth addicts entering treatment also peaked, even exceeding the number of admissions in 2005, at the height of the homemade-meth epidemic.
The lethal consequences of the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic have captured public attention recently, but experts warn that meth, whose users are less likely to die of overdoses, remains a major threat.
“The levels we reached in 2005 were unprecedented. Now, here we are again 10 years later,” said Carol Falkowski, former director of the alcohol and drug abuse division at the state Department of Human Services and now with Drug Abuse Dialogues, which offers educational workshops. “It’s a function of an enormous increase in the supply.”
Minnesota’s increased meth use parallels a 200 percent hike in drug seizures at the Mexican border from 2009 to 2013, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We continue to see across the state of Minnesota record numbers of users,” said Brian Marquart, statewide gang and drug coordinator with the Public Safety Department’s Office of Justice Programs. He advises the state’s violent-crime enforcement teams, which do most meth seizures. They comprise more than 200 officers from 120 agencies in 70 of the state’s 87 counties.
“I have seen meth users as young as 14 and 15 and as [old] as 60,” Marquart said. “The users I’ve talked to say it’s the worst thing they ever tried. They never imagined a drug would take absolute control of every aspect of their life.”
In 2003, Minnesota authorities uncovered 410 meth labs. Those busts and the environmental dangers created by illegal labs prompted legislators to put strict regulations on the sale of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant contained in medications such as Sudafed. As a result, meth lab seizure numbers dropped dramatically, to as low as 18 in 2009. And for a few years, meth use declined in Minnesota.
But by 2010, it was clear to law enforcement officials that Mexican cartels were filling that void.
Meth is easy to get
These days, meth is plentiful, cheap and often more potent that it was during the last surge. Its cost has plummeted from $22,000 per pound in 2009 to $8,500 per pound in 2015, Marquart said.
Last year, meth was one of the drugs most seized by the state violent-crime enforcement teams, far outpacing heroin, prescription painkillers and cocaine. Officers seized 25 times as much meth as they did heroin.
“It’s never gone away. It’s coming back into the fold,” said Paul Sommer, commander in the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office. “People’s memories are short. It has come back on the horizon as if it’s almost a new drug.”
Minnesota’s network of meth dealers is much more extensive than that devoted to heroin, readily extending into suburban and rural areas, said Coon Rapids police detective Matt Lund. “Heroin is being sold in Minneapolis. Meth is being sold in Anoka County,” he said. “We can buy meth almost anywhere.”
In addition to the trafficking explosion, some users still cook meth at home, making small quantities in 2-liter plastic soda bottles using a method police call shake-and-bake.
“It’s a very dangerous process,” Lund said. “If they don’t burp those gases off properly, it will cause a chemical explosion. It’s just a new way to manufacture it.”
In addition to being highly volatile, shake-and-bake manufacture of 1 pound of meth can create nearly 6 pounds of toxic waste, according to the 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.
Opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, are still the bigger killer in Minnesota. Ramsey and Hennepin counties had 139 deaths related to overdoses on those drugs in 2014, compared with 17 meth overdose deaths, according to Falkowski’s research.
But the long-term effects of meth are devastating, especially to younger users’ still-developing brains.
While heroin slows or shuts down breathing or the heart, meth makes users agitated, paranoid and aggressive, sometimes keeping them awake for days. In extreme cases, it can cause death from stroke, heart attack or multiple organ failure caused by overheating in the body.
Meth use also produces tactile hallucinations — a feeling that bugs are crawling on one’s skin. Users will then scratch until open sores develop.
Heroin and prescription-painkiller addiction accounted for nearly a quarter of all Minnesota treatment admissions in 2014. Meth users accounted for 12 percent of admissions. (Alcohol-abuse admissions topped the list at 43 percent.)
Addiction ravages not only users’ health but also their personal finances. The damage and danger inevitably extend to family members, especially children, as well as to the broader community.
Last week, a meth user from Princeton, Minn., pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in Anoka County for causing an August 2013 crash in Andover that killed a former Cambridge coach. Authorities say Christina Rockstroh, 43, had meth in her system when her SUV crossed a centerline and hit 62-year-old Gary Christofferson’s car head-on. She was sentenced to 48 months in prison.
Past anti-meth campaigns graphically highlighted its ugly consequences, including rotting teeth and gaunt physiques. But today’s young users have no memory of “meth mouth” images and other consequences, Falkowski said.
“There is always generational forgetting when it comes to drug abuse,” she said. “New users have no recall of the experience of past users.”