OKLAHOMA CITY -- As members of Congress consider restrictions on the sale of cold pills used to make methamphetamine, they might want to look at what's happened in Oklahoma, which has slashed the number of home meth labs yet failed to curb meth use.
Oklahoma last year became the first state to make consumers visit a pharmacy counter to buy cold medicine containing the meth ingredient pseudoephedrine. Lab seizures plunged from 90 a month in 2003 to nine in June, state officials say. Fires and chemical hazards pose a smaller threat to neighborhoods and children of meth cooks.
But police say a massive influx of meth made by Mexican "superlabs," which can obtain tons of pseudoephedrine in Mexico, has kept meth plentiful and potent. The number of Oklahoma users shows no sign of falling, and property crime still keeps the Oklahoma County Jail at capacity.
"We took away their production," said Tom Cunningham, task force coordinator for the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council. "That didn't do anything for their addiction."
Two decades of government effort have failed to curb the availability of meth. A new analysis of federal data by The Oregonian shows that the drug's potency has hit levels not seen in a decade. Rising purity indicates the supply of meth is growing, and it means a $25 bag of meth will last a user longer.
Congress is weighing competing proposals for how to respond.
The Senate has taken aim at home meth cooks, passing a bill that would impose Oklahoma-style restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine nationwide. The House has targeted large-scale Mexican traffickers, taking up a measure that would restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine across the globe.
Federal officials estimate that home labs account for 35 percent of meth consumed in the United States, while Mexican cartels produce 65 percent.
The debate has historic echoes. Lawmakers have previously enacted tighter controls over some sources of meth chemicals while ignoring others here and abroad. Each time, home cooks and international traffickers exploited the loopholes.
Oklahoma's experience shows the potential benefits of limiting access to cold medicine, as the Senate has proposed. Investigators who once spent weeks dismantling labs are now working undercover in hopes of capturing major traffickers.
A rash of similar pseudoephedrine laws in states such as Oregon has led drug companies to sell cold medicines that cannot be converted to meth.
Oklahoma also illustrates the limits of policies that make cold medicine harder to buy in America while leaving it easy for Mexican drug cartels to obtain beyond U.S. borders.
"We have seen a lot of publicity associated with people's access to the ingredients," said Oklahoma County Commissioner Jim Roth. "But from our local government experience, we have not seen a corresponding decline in either the jail population or the social effects that seem to have still lingered from high meth use."
A Steady Supply
Mexican cartels took little time flooding the Oklahoma meth market after the pseudoephedrine law took effect in April 2004.
"It hit us without much delay," Lt. Charles Smallwood, a drug investigator with the Mayes County Sheriff's Office, said of the arrival of Mexican-made meth. "We started seeing commercial methamphetamine almost immediately."
The Mexican meth sold in Oklahoma is increasingly potent. Drugs seized by federal agents during the first six months of this year averaged 75 percent pure, up from 37 percent two years ago, data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration show.
In the past, sharp increases in purity have prompted comparable jumps in the number of addicts.
But declining local production combined with increasing Mexican imports appear to have canceled each other out in Oklahoma, leaving the supply of the drug stable.
Statistics from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services show the number of people entering treatment for meth abuse monthly stopped rising after April 2004. Simultaneously, the number of cases of forgery -- a crime prosecutors say is commonly committed by meth users -- leveled off in Oklahoma County after a steady rise.
Existing Oklahoma meth users said they saw little change when the state began restricting access to pseudoephedrine products.
Michael Higgins, 22, was in community college and living with his grandmother in Norman when the law took effect last year. His girlfriend had stopped using the drug the year before and moved away with their young daughter.
Higgins, like three other recovering addicts interviewed last month, said he had no trouble buying meth before or after the law took effect. In fact, he began using meth more and more as 2004 progressed. He withdrew from friends and could no longer attend classes without becoming paranoid, fearing classmates knew he was high. He rarely called his daughter.
"My life started going downhill fast," Higgins said. This summer, on the verge of injecting the drug for the first time, he checked into rehab.
Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said persistent meth use has helped keep his jail filled with 2,850 inmates, the most the fire marshal will allow and 40 percent more than in 2000.
Peter Haddock, an Oklahoma County prosecutor, said he is inundated with forgery cases, and defendants often say meth is why they began printing bogus checks and identification.
"All I know is, I'm getting drug addicts doing this all the time," Haddock said.
New Police Role
Although meth users are still buying drugs and committing crimes, the decline in local meth labs has dramatically altered the lives of Oklahoma police.
Patrick Vance, an investigator with the drug task force in Shawnee, said taking apart a meth lab can take 12 hours. Filling out the paperwork can consume another 12. In the entire 16 months since the pseudoephedrine law took effect, Vance's agents have worked two or three labs.
"We've got a lot more time to chase the real bad guys," Vance said, "as opposed to the idiots who are cooking it in the backyard."
The shift in emphasis has opened the eyes of veteran drug cops.
"For years, every week we came to work, it was, 'How many labs do we have this week?' " said Kevin McIntire, supervisor for the drug task force in Ardmore. "We're having to refocus on the bigger picture."
McIntire was once skeptical that Mexican traffickers were pumping far more meth into Oklahoma than local cooks. He has become a believer.
"There are hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine moved through small towns all over our area," he said. "And until recently, we had no idea that these people even existed."
Penetrating Mexican drug cartels is by no means simple, police are finding.
Closing a small-lab case typically meant following a pseudoephedrine thief home from the drugstore. The thief might snitch on his partner for $50 or a plea deal. The network often went no further.
Working a major distribution case means going undercover, winning a wary dealer's trust, then following a chain of connections that can lead all the way to Mexico. It entails months of wiretaps and large-scale purchases.
A single deal could wipe out McIntire's $5,000 annual budget for undercover buys. Lonnie Wright, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said ambitious investigations were exactly what officials hoped to launch after passage of the pseudoephedrine law.
"We're going for those eight, 10 people at the top who are directly connected to the cartel people at the border," Wright said. "We're back to working Mr. Big." Rising purity nationally
The purity of meth seized by federal agents across the nation has been rising since 1999, The Oregonian's analysis of DEA data has found.
Oklahoma's growing supply of Mexican meth is far from unique.
Meth seized nationally now tests 70 percent to 80 percent pure on average, almost double the level just six years ago. The increase in purity was steady and widespread, from Oregon and California to Texas and Florida.
Law enforcement officials say Mexican traffickers are the reason.
"They're flooding the United States with crystal," said Capt. Craig Durbin of the Oregon State Police.
The trend reflects a near-total reversal in progress made during the 1990s.
In 1995-96 and 1998-99, the government succeeded in producing widespread meth shortages and declines in meth purity by controlling first ephedrine and then pseudoephedrine. The Oregonian revealed in its five-part series, "Unnecessary Epidemic," that meth use declined each time as meth became less potent.
Mexican traffickers have ramped up production since then by acquiring massive quantities of pseudoephedrine, first in Canada and later in Mexico, whose legally approved imports of the chemical have soared in recent years.
Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., said The Oregonian's new analysis shows that Congress should focus on ending the ability of Mexican traffickers to produce meth.
"We need to have the same energy going after shutting down the importing of meth from Mexico and other countries as we have going after the cold pills," said Kennedy, who wants to withdraw aid to Mexico if it fails to restrain its imports. "In fact, we have to have greater energy because it's a greater source of supply."
The House and Senate appear headed toward conflict over meth.
Kennedy's proposal on aid to Mexico is now part of a broad international meth bill scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. It has no Oklahoma-style limits on sales of cold medicines.
The Senate, meanwhile, has sent the House a bill that would place pseudoephedrine products nationwide behind pharmacy counters. It contains no international provisions.
Sponsors on each side have criticized the other's legislation for failing to address a major source of supply.
With or without new legislation, DEA officials say they are working to confront meth made locally and in Mexico.
"When you have almost 70 percent of what's in the states coming from another country, in this case Mexico, it's a huge concern," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman. "And it's something we're continuing to work with Mexico to address."
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