The Rise of Meth Labs in Florida

Methamphetamine addiction is one of the best-known, and longest standing, public health crises in Florida. The drug has been easy to purchase in Florida since the 1990s, when domestic production of meth began to balloon, as did the flow of the drug from across the United States-Mexico border.

Meth dependency in Central Florida and the Panhandle is one of the largest and most persistent drug crises in the state. It hits young people particularly hard. Rehabilitation professionals say that, after heroin, amphetamines are the second most common substance for which Floridians aged 18–35 seek addiction treatment.

The meth problem in Florida isn’t going to go away. Florida’s meth supply is large and hard to shrink. Meth dealing networks import vast quantities of high-grade drugs into the state. And as soon as law enforcement is able to crack down on one production method, another one rises.

According to law enforcement agencies, seizures of meth labs went up 77 percent from 2007 to 2012. One report stated that 676 labs were busted in Florida in 2011. The amount of seizures, and thus the amount of production, could be even higher. That study includes data from some, not all, of the state’s local law enforcement agencies.

The increase in seizures could indicate that law enforcement is making a significant dent in production. But it could also mean that production has simply become more prevalent.

After all, meth is incredibly easy to produce, and users are known to make their own supply. Indeed, law enforcement believes that small, self-serve operations are the biggest domestic suppliers of meth in the United States today.

That’s not the only way meth is produced. It’s big business. Foreign cartels, particularly from Mexico, have begun to take over the methamphetamine trade. Most of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States is produced in Mexico, according to the DEA. The Sinaloa cartel dominates the drug import and transportation trade in Florida and imports most of the state’s meth supply.

Meth seizures along the United States border with Mexico went up 300 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to a UN report. And, as with the domestic production mentioned above, those seizures are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Mexican law enforcement reported a 34 percent increase in meth seizures from 2013 to 2014, and busted 131 labs in 2014.

How Meth Gets into the US Now

Cartels use all sorts of devious methods to get their drugs to market in Florida. One common tactic is liquid suspension. Methamphetamine can be reconstituted into ingestible form after it is dissolved in water or alcohol.

Traffickers put this liquid meth in beverage bottles and other legitimate liquid storage products. Even at the border, where commercial shipments are regularly searched for drugs, meth in this form is difficult to detect.

After liquid meth crosses the border, traffickers move the drug in liquid form to the area where they mean to sell it. At that point, the drug is moved to a conversion lab, where traffickers convert the liquid meth back into salable crystal form.

Transnational criminal networks spend millions transporting meth into the United States. It’s an ironic turn of events. After all, meth used to be the drug at the center of America’s home grown narcotics epidemic.

The Decline of Industrial Meth Production in the US

Until recently, most methamphetamines consumed in the United States were also made here. Cooking meth was a lucrative business that anyone with a spare room and a few hundred dollars could enter.

Methamphetamine can be refined from pseudoephedrine, a popular cold medicine marketed under names like Sudafed, using easily obtained, everyday materials. As a result, large scale domestic meth manufacturing operations became widespread starting in the 1990s.

Meth became popular at that point because it was an easier-to-access, and cheaper, alternative to crack cocaine. Cocaine products originate in South America and must be imported into the United States through Florida or across the Mexican border.

Transborder shipment requires expensive misdirection methods, such as the ones described above. Cartels ship more product than they actually intend to sell so that they can withstand losses in the event of seizure. The cost of those dummy shipments is included in street prices.

Because meth was made in the United States from household materials, anyone could produce and sell it cheaply.

As meth addiction began to reach crisis levels, state and local governments began to restrict the amount of meth materials that could be bought all at once. This effort culminated in the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which limited the amount of pseudoephedrine any person could buy from one store in one day.

The act and related legislation reduced large-scale domestic meth production, but this had significant unintended consequences. Imports filled most of the decline in domestic production. Domestic production also continued through two methods: large-scale “smurfing” operations and the small-scale “one pot” or “shake ‘n bake” methods.

Domestic Meth Production Today: Smurfing Operations

Smurfing operations employ dozens of buyers. These buyers, the titular smurfs, go from store to store and buy the maximum amount of pseudoephedrine allowed. They then supply the materials to a meth cook, who repays the smurf with cash or drugs. Frequently, smurfs are themselves meth addicts.

A smurfing scheme is dangerous to operate. Employing a large number of smurfs increases the risk that a meth producer could be exposed to law enforcement. Smurfs are hardly the most loyal deputies. They’re in the game for drugs.

Some smurfs even lack the loyalty of a meth user to a dealer. Cooks often hire people experiencing homelessness to buy pseudoephedrine in exchange for cash or meals. With their limited loyalties, smurfs can easily turn witness under pressure and get the cook they work for arrested.

Large-scale domestic meth production has been severely disrupted because of these supply issues. However, chemical dependencies don’t go away. Those with methamphetamine addiction have begun to manufacture their own drug supply on a small scale.

Dangers of Meth Production and Addiction

Cooking meth is hazardous. Meth production creates dangerous, toxic chemical fumes. Meth labs are notorious for the risks they pose to people outside the drug trade. Labs frequently explode or cause horrible fires. These fires can destroy entire blocks.

Meth fires cause severe property damage and injury. What meth labs do to children is even more heartbreaking. Producing one pound of crystal meth also produces five pounds of toxic waste. Children who grow up in meth labs — even small-scale labs — are exposed to chemicals that can cause disabilities, injuries, and illnesses in children.

Exposure to meth’s precursor chemicals can cause lung burns, organ damage, and cancer in people of any age. Children who grow up in meth labs are at risk of all these ailments. They also frequently suffer from stunted growth and mental disabilities.

Still, what might be even worse for children is the meth addict’s home environment. Children of addicts are likely to grow up to become addicts themselves.

The meth trade is also a source of violent crime in Florida. According to the 2015 National Drug Threat Survey, 20.8 percent of respondents in Florida and the Caribbean reported that methamphetamine contributed to violent crime.

Organized crime’s presence in the meth trade is one cause. The other is meth’s psychological effects. Meth is one of the strongest stimulants out there. Any meth experience can cause psychosis, rage, or paranoia. Regular meth users are even more susceptible to those emotions. Drug addiction steadily lowers inhibitions and intensifies emotional states.

People with long-time chemical dependence on meth are often covered in sores. They frequently report a hallucination that bugs are crawling all over their bodies. The sores are the result of frenzied scratching and scraping, as meth users try to rid their skin of the bugs.

Visible physical effects of meth use include weight loss, “meth mouth” and pale skin. Brain and nerve cells can suffer permanent damage from meth exposure.

Recovery from meth addiction often requires a combination of detox, medication and behavioral therapy, and relapse is common. Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous can help meth addicts maintain recovery.

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