Staff Columnist

Meth: Iowa's on it, too, more than ever before

“Meth. We’re on it.” Logo from State of South Dakota’s ad campaign (From onmeth.com)
“Meth. We’re on it.” Logo from State of South Dakota’s ad campaign (From onmeth.com)

America had a collective laugh last week about a decidedly unfunny subject.

South Dakota’s newly launched anti-drug marketing campaign, “Meth. We’re on it,” was widely mocked for sending an unclear message. The state government reportedly paid an out-of-state agency nearly half a million dollars for its work.

Here in Iowa, we’re on meth too — increasingly so, despite more than a decade of efforts to curb methamphetamine access through new laws and more enforcement activities.

The Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control and Police published its annual report this month. On the bright side, drug control authorities report, Iowa’s overall illicit drug use is relatively low and there are early signs that opioid overdose deaths are on the decline.

On the not-so-bright side, state Drug Policy Coordinator Dale Woolery singles out increasing methamphetamine use figures as a top problem facing the state.

Iowa has a long and notable history with meth. Many rural and poor communities in the Midwest have struggled to combat the rise of homemade psychostimulant drugs for more than two decades. The 2009 book “Methland” famously documented how economic factors contributed to drug misuse in one Northern Iowa town.

In 2005, the Iowa Legislature passed a law to restrict sales of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant medication that is also a key ingredient in illicit meth. Another law passed in 2009 placed additional tracking requirements on sales of the substance.

“Legislation regulating key meth-making ingredients, Iowa’s Pseudoephedrine Tracking System, better public awareness and strong enforcement efforts have contributed to this public protection progress,” drug control officials wrote in their 2020 report.

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While those policies initially seemed to depress measures of meth use and availability, the numbers have since bounced back up and beyond previous records. Deaths, prison admissions and the amount of drugs seized have increased substantially in the past decade.

Confoundingly, drug controllers now report “domestic meth labs have nearly been eradicated.” The number of meth labs discovered by law enforcement in Iowa has plummeted to the lowest point in more than 20 years, totaling just 26 last year, compared to 1,500 in 2004.

At the same time, however, the state has seen staggering increases in other metrics:

• The number of recorded deaths from meth and other psychostimulants in Iowa has risen from 11 in 2011 to 91 in 2018.

• The number of people admitted to Iowa prisons for methamphetamine-related charges has risen from 304 in 2009 to 617 in 2019. Among all drug-related prison admissions, meth accounts for 68 percent.

• The portion of Iowa adults admitted to treatment programs who reported meth as their primary substance has risen from 9 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2019.

• The volume of methamphetamine seized by Iowa law enforcement has risen from less than 50,000 in 2012 to nearly 200,000 in 2018. That doesn’t include “large and major case amounts” seized by the federal government, the report notes.

• The reported price of one gram of meth has risen from $130 in 2010 to $105 in 2018, which suggests there is substantially more supply in the market.

Officials attribute those spikes to an influx of meth smuggled in from Mexico, in “the purest forms ever reported.” They also warn of innovative tactics manufacturers and transporters are using — “conversion labs” with which meth is extracted from a solution that conceals the drug during transport, and the small-scale “one pot” method.

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It’s almost as if people find ways to get drugs even if they are outlawed. Indeed, it’s almost as if we need some other response to drugs than arresting people and putting them in jail.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem, absolutely,” U.S. Drug Czar Jim Carroll said during a visit to Cedar Rapids this year, as reported by The Gazette. “But we’re not going to treat our way out of this problem, either.”

It appears that Iowa is winning the war on meth labs, but losing badly in the fight to reduce harmful effects of the drug itself. Until we move past our culture or prohibition, enforcement and incarceration, expect more of the same.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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