Wednesday, October 28, 2015

California's methamphetamine problem

Methamphetamine is a drug known for occurring in rural America. It also, curiously, appears in rural parts of California. What is remarkable about California is that nearby states have significantly fewer labs than California.

In a 2011 article the claim is set forth that California's Central Valley is home to roughly 80% of the nation's meth labs and 97% of the nations superlabs.

These percentages are according to California Department of Justice’s “Clandestine Meth Labs” report. A “superlab” is a production facility that manufactures ten pounds or more of meth per batch, as compared to a typical one pound “stove top” batch; many superlabs have been found that produce fifty or more pounds per batch.
Factors that were included as being part of the surge in meth labs in California includes the relative remoteness of the Central Valley, the number of workers looking for work, the advantage of being within the national border (*thereby eliminating the need to smuggle drugs over the border), and the ability to acquire chemicals needed for drug manufacturing while pretending it's for agricultural needs. Drug cartels have been linked to the drug trade in the region as well, taking advantage of the 99 and 5 freeways that lead to major metropolitan areas.

Large tracts of farmland with isolated outbuildings are an ideal place to avoid detection, which is why the region is home to nearly all of the nation's "super labs," controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations, said John Donnelly, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Fresno. (Source: USA Today)

Part of the reason given for the surge in meth labs includes the ongoing drug war in Mexico. The Wall Street Journal discusses how the ongoing drug war in Mexico has sent producers into a safer country where the authorities are caught unprepared to cope with a sudden influx of illegal substance manufacturing.

With the influx comes the usual economics of a market. Vice looked into the matter of the cartels and California's influx of meth. One agent told Vice that in 2008 meth was up to $10,000 per pound. As of January 2015, it was down to $3,500 a pound. One theory that was floated in the Vice article is that the cartels are producing the drug where overhead costs and ricks are lower. This dovetails with the factors mentioned above which included the lack of border crossing. The drugs can flow freely within the state without passing over a formal check point where a criminal enterprise might be discovered.

One issue with the labs is drug acquisition. The federal government has sought to limit the ability to buy the drugs needed to make meth. This has included a cap on how much one individual can buy at a pharmacy. However, as can be seen in this ABC7 article we see that the labs turned to "smurfing". Large groups of individuals go to pharmacies, buy the required over the counter drugs and then give the drugs to the lab. Pharmacies do not share information with one another so the pharmacies will take the buyer's name down and look at a picture identification, and the buyer is free to go to the next pharmacy, without the first pharmacy warning the second.

Unlike marijuana I would contest that methamphetamine is a very real danger to communities. USA Today discussed some of the effects methamphetamine can have on a person's mind and body. Effects can last 50 times longer than cocaine and include hallucinations, impaired cognitive functions, and deterioration of the brain. It can cause people to be more violent towards people around them, enhance depression, and lead to tragedies, which USA Today outlines in depth.

It is well established that rural areas tend to be ignored, given their lack of significant population, remoteness, and the myriad of issues that are present in metropolitan areas that are addressed before the legislature looks to rural areas. That said, the problems stemming from the Central Valley can flow to Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It would behoove the legislature to look into how to get good paying jobs back into the area, better medical care, and crack down thoroughly on the industry that feels safe setting up shop in the midst of the state.

Further discussion on drugs and the crime that accompanies the drug trade can be found here, here, and here.


Taylor Call said...

I figured that California probably had a lot of labs, but never thought the percentage would be so high. It would be interesting to see how many labs occur in other border states that have high agricultural activity.

We need to focus more energy on finding and shutting down these meth labs. I have known many people that have fallen to meth addiction. It is a nasty drug and more often than not, it will ruin whoever does it. Limiting the number of drugs one can get at the pharmacy is a start, but I agree that more communication between pharmacies needs to occur. The large operations probably don't have to deal with picking up these meds from the pharmacies, however. Maybe if marijuana becomes legal, some of the resources spent on marijuana busts can be diverted to meth.

Daniel Quinley said...

First, in response to Taylor, I definitely hope that once marijuana becomes legal, those resources are devoted to meth.

The thing with meth labs, and the drug trade in general, is how economically sound (and opportunistic!) they are. I had no idea that the concentration of meth labs and super labs was so high in California. But, after reading the Vice article and thinking about it for a few minutes, it makes perfect sense. The Central Valley is remote, poor, and provides unfettered access to the rest of the United States with minimal risk of interdiction.

With the proliferation of labs, and the black market employment that the drug trade offers, I wonder what the best way forward for the Central Valley is. Shutting down the labs should be a priority, but, without something productive to fill the vacuum, I'm left wondering what scourge will take meth's place in the economic ecosystem of the Valley.