Meth and meth combined with other drugs killed 202 Oregonians in 2015. That’s up 44 percent from 2014, when 140 Oregonians died. Meth fatalities increased during the mid-2000s and spiked in the 2010s.
In 2016, 68 percent of Oregon law enforcement officers reported that meth was the most common street drug in their jurisdiction. According to law enforcement, that’s because skillful, efficient Mexican cartels now control the meth business.
Cartels have made the meth trade violent. The majority of Oregon’s police officers reported that meth trafficking causes the most drug-related violence in their area. Cartel members operating in Oregon commit violence acts, such as bombings and grisly roadside executions. Law enforcement also suspects that cartel members bombed the Portland exurb of Canby in 2011.
The national meth crisis began in Oregon and other Western states in the early 2000s. Oregon implemented laws targeting meth production and trafficking early. Those laws have nearly eliminated meth production in Oregon.
But they have not stopped meth use, which is now at its height of popularity in Oregon.
Meth emerged as a drug of abuse in the United States in the 2000s. Oregon was one of the first states to experience broad meth addiction.
During the early 2000s, Portland was a notorious center of meth use. One North Portland attorney sued to shut down a meth house in his neighborhood then started a successful business shutting down meth houses citywide.
One area, near Southeast 65th and Powell, was known as Felony Flats. The area experienced a combination of violent crime, drug sales, and drug use at all hours.
“They’d be selling or buying or giving each other signals,” Steve Winney, then a resident of the area, told The Portland Mercury. “I saw open-air deals out in front of the Harbor House many, many times.”
The meth trade resulted in continual drug transactions, constant nuisance crimes, property damage, noise, and loud arguments.
Similar scenes played out across the state. The meth trade spread widely. The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper, launched a years-long investigation into meth. In 2006 Oregon passed tough anti-meth laws. One measure banned sales of pseudoephedrine, a meth precursor, without a doctor’s prescription.
The investigation also attracted national attention as meth spread across the country. The Oregonian collaborated with PBS’s Frontline to produce “The Meth Epidemic.” Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in 2005.
CMEA successfully cracked down on domestic meth production. It blocked meth cooks from purchasing the chemicals needed to produce the drug. Since then, meth labs have become rare nationwide and in Oregon. The state’s meth lab cleanup program reported 45 labs in its queue as of April 2017. Of those labs, most joined the list soon after CMEA passed. Only five labs entered the cleanup program after 2010.
The mid-2000s crackdown did not end the meth epidemic. In fact, current death statistics suggest that it has gotten worse. Data from the public health departments of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties show that in Portland, the number of drug users who primarily injected meth has increased every year since 2012.
According to the DEA, meth is Oregon’s “greatest drug threat.” The amount of meth seized on the U.S.-Mexico border increased 305 percent between 2010 and 2015. Most of Oregon’s meth is now imported from Mexico and Central America where cartels produce it in industrial labs.
Meth imported from Mexico by cartels is purer than the U.S.-made meth that was more common during the early 2000s. Increased purity could be why meth fatalities have spiked.
The increase in fatalities could also be related to the growing opioid crisis. Public health workers believe that use of meth and opioids together has become more common in the 2010s.
“Meth has always been a pretty popular thing for people to inject here in Portland,” said Haven Wheelock, who directs the syringe exchange at Outside In, a Portland nonprofit. “We are seeing more people reporting using [a combination of meth and opioids], and more people who identify heroin as their drug most injected are also using meth.”
Cartels combined Oregon’s meth and heroin trades. Since cartels wholesale both drugs, drug dealers who once sold only meth now also sell heroin. Dealers package the two drugs together for sale and sometimes offer samples of one of the drugs to people who have come to buy the other.
Because Oregon’s and Washington’s drug trades are supplied by the same cartels, the trend has spread from Oregon to the rest of the Northwest. Indeed, the Tri-Met area is a major transshipment point for drugs moving across the region, and Oregon cartel operatives are suspected of committing violence in Washington.
Despite Oregon’s best efforts, meth use has not gone away. In fact, meth use may be growing because of its increasing connection to the booming heroin trade. The best way forward for Oregonians is to help their neighbors who are struggling with addiction get into treatment.