Staff Columnist

It's surging, but meth never really left us

Law enforcement officers wear protective equipment Aug. 9, 2013, as they work the scene of a meth lath in an apartment in North Liberty. A steady decline since then in calls for police to respond to clandestine meth labs belies the fact that increasingly meth is not homemade but smuggled — and far more potent. (The Gazette)
Law enforcement officers wear protective equipment Aug. 9, 2013, as they work the scene of a meth lath in an apartment in North Liberty. A steady decline since then in calls for police to respond to clandestine meth labs belies the fact that increasingly meth is not homemade but smuggled — and far more potent. (The Gazette)

Opioid abuse in Iowa seems to be falling. That’s the good news. On the more troubling side of things is rising use of methamphetamines, which never fully released their grip on Iowa or the Midwest.

Like most Iowans, I operated under the impression that most, if not all, of the meth war had been won. But while working on a new project over the last few months, state and local law enforcement dispelled my illusion. An annual report from the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy has done the same for the public.

A decade ago meth largely was a mom-and-pop business, with smaller batches of the drug being made in makeshift labs dotted throughout the state. Because of the public health risk posed by these labs, law enforcement and legislators cracked down.

Chemicals such as pseudoephedrine needed to manufacture the drug were placed behind pharmacists’ counters, and tracking systems were put in place; specially trained teams responded to reports of meth labs and began cleanup.

In 1993 — the year state officials began methodically tracking meth labs — state and local law enforcement busted four labs in Iowa. By 2002, more than 700 labs were disrupted by state officials, while local law enforcement broke up an additional 300 and federal authorities responded to nearly 1,300 more in the Hawkeye State. A year later, Iowa law enforcement, according to a report issued by the Legislative Services Agency, was responding to an average of more than 3.5 meth lab incidents each day.

At that point — when most policy changes were just being enacted — Iowa was second in the nation for its total number of meth labs, and third in the nation for total number of meth lab incidents. Throughout the state, media outlets large and small carried the headlines of lab dangers, including the toxic stew left behind after production.

Of the more than 1,100 people who entered Iowa prisons on drug charges in 2004, more than 60 percent (roughly 700) were for meth. Even so, the average purity of meth coming out of these “small batch” labs (most produced only a few grams at a time) was roughly 24 percent.

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Policy changes and crack downs have changed the illicit drug landscape in Iowa, but haven’t necessarily addressed meth addiction.

Much of the stimulant that comes into Iowa today is produced elsewhere and transported across state and national borders in large quantities — some in liquid form that is transformed into “crystals” at secondary labs. The drug itself has changed, too, as a result of this vertical integration. A gram today costs significantly less than it did 10 to 20 years ago, and it is far more pure and potent.

While the public face of meth — clandestine labs and their subsequent dangers — has been significantly lessened, the public toll of addition has continued. Meth as a primary drug involved in prison admissions is once again on the rise, moving from 478 in 2013 to nearly 600 admissions last year.

Even as opioid deaths appear to be decreasing, the state is seeing a rise in the number of people dying of pscho-stimulant related causes and has reached a new all-time high in the percentage of Iowans entering treatment with meth as their primary substance.

The annual report calls for three key policy goals to address the new illicit-drug landscape:

• Reduce the number of drug-related deaths involving Iowans in part by enhancing partnerships that have emerged during the opioid crisis to include more substances.

• Reduce the number of Iowa 11th-graders who use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs through prevention and education efforts, hopefully leading to fewer adult addicts across the spectrum of drug abuse.

• Increase the number of Iowans who are employed after substance use disorder treatment, as this is viewed as a key area to prevent relapse.

On the second bullet point, it’s worth noting that alcohol and tobacco use among Iowa teens has been on the decline for more than a decade. Marijuana use is slightly down as well to match tobacco’s 10 percent level.

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Generally speaking, Iowans have done a good job in addressing the most public aspects of drug manufacture and use, and the accomplishment is significant.

What the state appears to be missing is dedicated focus once news headlines stop.

Answering the public health risks of meth production wasn’t optional, but we should be equally vigilant in responding to the less visible public health risks of ongoing addiction and the illicit trafficking patterns created by policy changes — for meth, and for opioids.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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