Washington’s Meth Crisis Enters a Deadly New Phase

Methamphetamine abuse became a public health crisis in the late 1990s when suppliers began to manufacture the drug at a large scale in the United States. Meth labs began to appear in suburbs and rural areas.

Washington state, like the rest of the western United States, was a major center of meth production at the beginning of the meth boom in the 1990s. Washington’s open spaces and small towns were ideal for meth lab operations.

The U.S. government noticed growing levels of meth abuse in the early 2000s and made an effort to crack down on production. In 2006, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA), which made large-scale domestic meth production nearly impossible.

Still, meth is a major and devastating drug of abuse in Washington. In particular, Spokane residents and other Eastern Washingtonians have struggled with meth abuse. It’s become even deadlier, as some Washington drug users have begun to use it in combination with opiates.

Changes in Meth Production

During the first meth boom, in the 2000s, Washington was a major center of meth production. From 2000 to 2005, the Washington State Department of Ecology cleaned up 8,667 meth labs. Meth production was clustered in the state’s major population centers: Pierce, King, Thurston, Snohomish, and Spokane Counties.

Meth labs are still seized in Washington, but after the act was passed in 2006, Washington’s meth production plummeted. The Department of Ecology cleaned 1,222 labs from 2006 to 2012, or about 85 percent fewer labs. Production nearly vanished.

The reduction in meth labs can be attributed to the fact that the act limited the amount of meth ingredients that a person could buy at once. The most important is pseudoephedrine, which contains most of the chemical compounds required to create meth. It’s available in drug stores and most supermarkets as an active ingredient in cold medicine.

When the U.S. meth boom was in full swing, producers would buy out flats of pseudoephedrine-based medicine. Pseudoephedrine purchases are now capped by the act. The state took the crackdown even further. In 2011, Washington required stores to track purchases of pseudoephedrine in a database accessible to law enforcement.

As a result of the crackdown, commercial-scale meth production was taken over by drug cartels, which manufacture the drug, then covertly shipped across the U.S.-Mexico border. Several cartels, including the Sinaloa cartel, the Knights Templar cartel and the Beltran-Leyva Organization, compete for shares of Washington’s drug market and ship large quantities of meth to the state. So, despite the production crackdown, the meth supply is still growing. The DEA seized 250 pounds of meth in Washington in 2010, and 600 pounds in 2014.

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Spokane Speedballs: Mixing Meth and Heroin

But to concentrate on domestic production misses the point.

“We’ve seen a very sharp decrease in meth production,” Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Gregory told Spokane’s independent Inlander. “We haven’t seen any meth labs in really quite some time.”

Yet Spokane has an acute meth crisis. Though heroin and other opiates get the bulk of the public and media’s attention in Washington, in Spokane, meth has taken hold of more lives.

“We do see heroin here, but nothing compared to what the rest of the country is seeing,” DEA agent Tracy Simmons, who oversees the agency’s Eastern Washington and Idaho operations, told the Inlander. “We see more meth cases than any other cases.”

According to Simmons, Spokane is a major transshipment site for meth and other cartel drugs bound for Idaho, Montana, and the Palouse. Meth, alone or in conjunction with other drugs, kills more people in Spokane County than any other drug.

So meth never really went away, and the supply of heroin is going up in Washington. Perhaps unsurprisingly, using the two drugs in combination is now common in Washington.

Opiates and meth have complementary effects. Opiates are downers, so they have a mellow, blissful high. Meth, on the other hand, is an upper. Opiate users have begun to mix meth with heroin, creating a different psychoactive effect.

“When you do both at the same time you compound the effects of both drugs. One doesn’t counteract the other,” Mike Lopez of the Spokane Fire Department told The Spokesman-Review. Mixing meth with heroin can cause heart attack, overdose, or stroke, any of which can be fatal or cause lifelong disability.

Studies show that the combination is more habit-forming than either drug on its own. It’s also more dangerous.

The tragic effects of speedball use are becoming more common in Washington. In the Spokane area, meth is one of the main drivers of a surge in overdose deaths over the course of 2016. According to the Spokane County Medical Examiner, overdoses in Spokane County rose from 82 in 2015 to 115 in 2016.

And, while coroners can’t assess what drug killed an overdose victim — they can see only what drugs were in a person’s system — it’s very likely that a large portion of those 115 deaths were caused by speedballs. According to the University of Washington, roughly one-third of drug users surveyed at Spokane needle exchanges in 2015 had used meth and heroin together.

Speedball use isn’t just an overdose risk. Many meth and speedball users inject the drugs, which places them at risk of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases. HIV infection has become increasingly common in Washington’s meth users in recent years. Meth is a common drug of abuse in the gay community, which disproportionately suffers from HIV. As a result, HIV could start to spread faster in Washington’s population of meth users than it does in the population of heroin users.

Meth abuse has become a permanent part of Washington’s landscape. The crisis is about to enter its third decade, and now it’s becoming intertwined with another drug crisis.

Law enforcement and smart policy have succeeded in reducing domestic meth production. But ending domestic production hasn’t solved the meth problem. Now, violent cartels control the meth trade. Meth users are also using the heroin that those cartels bring into Washington. And a new wave of overdose deaths is picking up steam.

We may never be able to control the supply of drugs: meth is just the most recent case study that proves it. What we can do is limit the demand for drugs by helping drug users get into treatment.