Biker’s Coffee. Chalk. Crystal. Glass. Ice. Speed. Tweak. No matter what name it goes by, methamphetamine is the most common illicit drug of choice in the five-county region, according to local law enforcement and narcotics investigators. With both local and international ties, officers say meth is a drug that knows no bounds.
“Socio-economic factors don’t come into play. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, where you are. It crosses all barriers, all boundaries,” said Fannin County investigator Lt. Frank Deater. “You could be in the richest, most affluent person, or you could be the person who has nothing, and that drug still could be your drug of choice. It could be the monkey on your back.”
While meth abuse has existed since the 1990s, national data shows usage is increasing nationwide. According to a 2018 study in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence Journal, meth use increased among treatment-seeking opioid users from 18.8% in 2011 to 34.2% in 2017. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an early warning system, which tracks drug trends in sentinel sites across the country; five of its 12 reporting sites reported increases in meth overdose deaths in 2017, including the Texas site. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported 964,000 people age 12 or older had a methamphetamine use disorder in 2017 — a number significantly higher than the 684,000 who reported having the disorder in 2016.
What is meth?
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meth is a stimulant drug, a branch of the Federal Drug Administration-approved medication Desoxyn. The DEA lists pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter drug, as the key ingredient for domestic meth production. Meth can be a pill, powder or crystallized; users can swallow, snort, inject or smoke it. According to the NIDA, the rush meth users receive comes from the release of extremely high levels of dopamine into the brain.
“Chronic meth users can exhibit violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and psychotic features, including paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances and delusions,” the DEA states in its fact sheet. “High doses may result in death from stroke, heart attack, or multiple organ problems caused by overheating.”
Anson Amos, an investigator with Lamar County Sheriff’s Office, has worked in narcotics since the early 2000s. He said he’s seen meth production evolve over time as laws became more strict, such as the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which regulates pseudoephedrine sales and requires the logging of purchase information.
“For a long time, back in the ’90s, early 2000s, we were having a lot of meth labs. That started going away when they started restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, which is the main ingredient you need to cook meth. You can’t substitute that,” Amos said. “In 2010, we started seeing a ‘shake ’n bake’ lab or a ‘one pot,’ where it’s basically cooked in a water bottle, or a plastic bottle.”
Over the years, Amos said, he’s seen the drug price go down and the demand go up.
“When I first started working dope in 2005, we were buying an ounce anywhere from $1,500 to $1,700 an ounce. Now we can buy it for as low as $350 to $400 an ounce — 28 grams,” he said. “The most common way used to be $100 per gram, and now it’s cut to less than half of that.”
Usage, arrests on the rise
Deputies said they were doing what they can to combat meth usage in their counties, but cited limited staff and funding as issues. Many said drug arrests come in waves. Deater said arrests tend to peak when multiple dealers or users are arrested and then “roll” on their connections. He said the department made 10 drug arrests in 60 days in May, an example of a peak season where the department was receiving multiple leads on local narcotics operations.
Investigator Fred Booker with Red River County Sheriff’s Office said he’s worked in law enforcement since 1995 and seen the rise of meth usage firsthand. He said officers arrest three to four people a week for meth possession — at least every other day, by his estimation.
“Meth use is on the rise, and it will stay on the rise,” he said. “I think it’s an epidemic; it affects all walks of life. We’re a small department, way underfunded.”
Delta County Sheriff’s Office works in a population of 5,200. Sheriff Ricky Smith said his deputies have made 381 drug arrests since January 1995, and a majority were meth-related.
“At least 60% of my crime has a relation to drugs,” he said. “I would estimate 70% of those are meth.”
Amos credits the National Precursor Law Exchange system for a majority of his department’s 2010 arrests, a peak season when he estimates more than 50 people were arrested in connection to meth production. NPLEx is a real-time electronic logging system that tracks pseudoephedrine sales.
“I think the NPLEx system helped extremely with us making arrests on meth labs involving shake ‘n bake,” Amos said. “I think people started seeing they couldn’t go buy this pseudoephedrine without being noticed and eventually caught with a paper trail.”
But as law enforcement began to utilize NPLEx and crack down on meth labs, drugs began moving through the region from another source: Mexico.
“If it’s not cooked locally, 99% of it is coming from Mexico, across the border,” Amos said. Smith agreed, saying most of the meth he sees is shipped in from Texas’ neighbor to the south.
“Meth is cheaper. That’s the problem,” he said. “We see very little cocaine, little heroin. But most meth comes in from Mexico, because it’s cheaper to ship in.”
According to the DEA, more than 90% of the meth in Texas comes from Mexico. Data from the U.S. Customs and Border Control shows the surge in meth abuse now outpaces cocaine sales. CBP reported it seized 67,292 pounds of meth in the first 11 months of fiscal 2018 — nearly five times more than the 2012 amount. CBP also reported steady increases in confiscated meth at the border every year since 2007, noting a 38% increase in 2017-18.
“The other thing is, so much of this stuff is easily imported coming across the Mexican border or other places. It’s coming in because it’s not regulated in foreign countries such as El Salvador or Mexico, or places where the cartels are still in control,” Deater said. “So we’re having issues because our borders are full of gaping holes, security-wise.”
Many officers said they rely on every member of their departments to address drug production, use and trade in the area, and many try to work with other regional law offices.
“We rely on everybody’s information, from patrols who come in contact with people, calls for service, traffic stops,” Amos said. “But really, it’s a group effort.”