IMAGE: HUGE SEIZURE OF CHRYSTAL METH
Ric Feld  /  AP
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official shows some of the 187 pounds of "ice" seized along with 41 kilos of cocaine at a house in Buford, Ga., on Aug. 16. Although the case remains under investigation, authorities say the size of the stash points to Mexican drug cartel involvement.
By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/18/2006 12:28:06 PM ET 2006-09-18T16:28:06

After years of raiding “redneck labs” and arresting local methamphetamine cooks, drug squads in Georgia appeared to be gaining the upper hand on the makeshift operations in 2004, when the number of busts declined sharply from a peak of more than 800 the previous year.

But the glow of success quickly faded as international drug cartels distributing a purer form of the drug known as "ice" rushed in to fill the void.

“The labs start to decline and you’re happy,” said Phil Price, special agent in charge of regional drug enforcement for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “But the imported meth has really hit us hard. ... It's cheaper now to buy it on the streets."

Price said the shift has made the drug so abundant that distributors now commonly "front" up to 2 pounds of ice to street dealers on credit. It also has turned the Atlanta area into a distribution hub for the East Coast, he said.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to go through what Miami went through with cocaine,” he said.

What is happening in Georgia is occurring in many other states, the unexpected result of a strong law enforcement push against home meth labs and new limits on the purchase of cold remedies used to make the drug. The state's dilemma also illustrates the difficulties of America’s battle with methamphetamine, which has addictive powers comparable to crack cocaine, but is in many ways harder to control.

Ingredients easy to obtain, tough to police
The so-called “precursor chemicals” used to make meth — pseudoephedrine and ephedrine —are inexpensive and widely available in common cold and allergy medications. That ubiquity makes it impossible for law enforcement to concentrate on specific regions or countries in an effort to choke off the supply.

“Unlike drugs derived from organic materials, such as cocaine or heroin, (methamphetamine) production is not limited to a specific geographic region,” Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in June.

Its effects also ensure a steady demand.

Once inhaled, injected or smoked, meth creates euphoria and energy that can last for several days. But the frenzied flights are followed by depression and exhaustion that drive the need for the next fix. Eventually, the relentless pursuit of meth drives many users out of their middle- and upper-class lives into a grim existence of crime, poverty and deteriorating health on the streets.

Crackdown on medication purchases
Alarmed by the spread of the drug across the United States from its initial foothold on the West Coast, many communities have passed ordinances to made it harder for home cooks to buy large quantities of cold and allergy medications.

Gary Lundgren
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Pharmacist Gary Lundgren holds a Sudafed tablet in Central Drugs on June 27, in Portland, Ore., showing one of the common cold medications that now can only be purchased by prescription in that state. Millions of Sudafed tablets and other over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine were being diverted into methamphetamine production worldwide.
Congress entered the fray by passing the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in March as part of the renewal of the anti-terror Patriot Act, placing restrictions on retail pseudoephedrine purchases across the nation.

The federal government also has stepped up support on the front lines, funding training for local law enforcement agencies to help them find and safely dismantle the highly toxic meth labs.

As a result, lab seizures nationwide peaked in 2003 at more than 17,000 and have declined by nearly a third, to around 12,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But the battle gets tougher as it shifts to the global theater.

Helping police global trade
At the moment, federal drug enforcement officials say most of the meth smuggled into the United States is produced in Mexico, using chemicals diverted by the ton from pharmaceutical companies in Asia. But as the global spread of the drug illustrates, there are many routes to market.

Recognizing the new international threat, Washington is taking legislative and diplomatic initiatives to ensure cooperation from the global players in the meth trade — manufacturing centers like Mexico and the world's biggest producers of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, China, India and Germany.

At the United Nations, the U.S. pushed through a resolution that calls on countries to submit a yearly estimate of their legitimate need for the chemicals and to provide information on all exports -- both bulk shipments and those of pharmaceutical preparations. Previously those ingredients were uncontrolled, a gaping loophole in regulations that allowed millions of tablets containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine tobe sold on the black market.

Under the Combat Methamphetamine act, the State Department also is required to certify that the biggest exporters and importers of the chemicals cooperate with the United States, with the threat of withdrawal of foreign aid hanging over those that do not.

The U.S. initiative is working to a degree. The DEA says the U.S. has seen increasing cooperation from Mexico, China, India and Germany in sharing intelligence and conducting joint enforcement operations. The urgency of the mission is clear because they too are witnessing a rising tide of meth abuse, the DEA says.

But political will doesn't always translate into control over agile drug trafficking organizations.

“We're seeing ephedrine shipped from India and China to South Africa and then from there to South and Central America,” DEA administrator Karen Tandy said in a recent speech in Canada. “Chinese ephedrine is being diverted through Cairo on its way to Mexico. And ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are being diverted in other African countries including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Mozambique.”

IMAGE: Team prepares to clean up meth "super lab" in Mexico.
A Mexican drug enforcement team wearing hazmat suits prepares to enter a "super lab" that was used to make large volumes of methamphetamine. Production of the drug employs chemicals that are highly toxic, and cleanup requires special equipment and training.
Mexican authorities say that despite such criminal resourcefulness, limits imposed in 2004 on imports of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine and restrictions on the ports that shippers can use are paying off. The Federal Commission for Health Concerns told NBC this month that legal imports of pseudoephedrine have been more than halved, with 72 tons imported in the first nine months of 2006 compared to a total of 216 tons in 2004.

Mexico also has strengthened security for movement and storage of these chemicals, though the precautions aren’t always sufficient to stop determined criminals.

In late July, gunmen raided a pharmaceutical company in Mexico City, killing four guards and stealing about 2,200 pounds of pseudoephedrine.

Within weeks, the Mexican authorities seized about 220 pounds of finished meth at a "super lab" near Guadalajara. Mexican officials later said the chemicals used to make it had been imported legally from China, but did not explain how they were obtained by the meth producers.

Beijing battles local interests
China also is cracking down on the diversion of the chemicals from its massive pharmaceutical industry by beefing up security and regulations on pseudoephedrine producers, in part because domestic use of synthetic drugs including methamphetamine and ecstasy is climbing.

In a marked change, U.S. officials say Beijing has started conducting joint investigations with U.S. drug agents and sharing trafficking intelligence. In a 2005 crackdown on the meth trade, China says it seized more than 130 tons of smuggled pseudoephedrine in nine months.

But chaos and corruption at the local level frequently undermine Beijing's regulations and policies.

A news report in June gave a glimpse of what Beijing is up against: Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said government drug agents arrested 100 police officers in Shenyang for protecting a local meth smuggler.

Reports like that suggests the government's crackdown will have a limited impact, said David Bachman, a professor of Chinese affairs in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

"It is the type of problem as in software piracy … where there are strong incentives not to comply … (including) profits, jobs," he said. "We’ve seen the stink the U.S. can make on (intellectual property rights), and how little progress has been made."

The challenges of the global meth trade help explain why local officials in the United States still consider meth to be their biggest problem, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Counties.

That certainly holds true in the greater Atlanta area, where officials are seeing clear evidence of the involvement of the Mexican gangs in the meth trade.

On Aug. 16, officers seized a U.S.-record 174 pounds of the drug in Buford, Ga., about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. The mark didn’t last long, as a week later police in nearby Gainesville arrested dealers with 341 pounds of ice — a stash worth an estimated $50 million on the street.

From Mexican ‘super labs’ to U.S. streets
Authorities said organized gangs had smuggled the drug into the U.S. from Mexico, where it was probably manufactured at "super labs." 

Farther to the north, Sheriff Steve Wilson of Walker County, Ga.,  isn’t contemplating laying off any jailers even though his jurisdiction on Georgia's northern border with Tennessee is currently experiencing a breather in the meth epidemic.

At the height of what he calls the war against “redneck” labs” making meth, Wilson said his jail — capacity 210 — was jammed with 230 inmates, most of them in for meth production and related crimes.

But even though the inmate population is down to 150, Wilson is bracing for the next wave of meth crime, convinced that the Mexican gangs that are plaguing counties to the south are even now reversing Sherman’s march on Atlanta during the Civil War.

"What we believe is going to happen is that we’ve become so strict on the purchase of pseudoephedrine … that we will see a lot more Mexican meth,” he said. “They’ll make it by hundreds of pounds. I know it’s coming."

NBC's Federico Adlercreutz and Laura Saravia contributed to this report from Mexico City.

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