Drugs go through cycles — in the 1980s and early ’90s, the use of crack cocaine surged. In the early 2000s, meth made from pseudoephedrine, the decongestant in drugstore products like Sudafed, poured out of domestic labs like those in the early seasons of the hit television show “Breaking Bad.”
Narcotics squads became glorified hazmat teams, spending entire shifts on cleanup. In 2004, the Portland police responded to 114 meth houses. “We rolled from meth lab to meth lab,” said Sgt. Jan M. Kubic of the county sheriff’s office. “Patrol would roll up on a domestic violence call, and there’d be a lab in the kitchen. Everything would come to a screeching halt.”
In 2005 Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Act, which put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, limited sales to 7.5 grams per customer in a 30-day period and required pharmacies to track sales. Although some meth makers tried “smurfing,” sending emissaries to several stores to make purchases, meth cases plummeted.
States like Oregon and Mississippi required a prescription, making smurfing almost impossible. And a new epidemic took hold: prescription painkillers and opiates like heroin. With no more meth lab explosions on the nightly news, the public forgot about the drug.
But meth, it turns out, was only on hiatus. When the ingredients became difficult to come by in the United States, Mexican drug cartels stepped in. Now fighting meth often means seizing large quantities of ready-made product in highway stops.
The cartels have inundated the market with so much pure, low-cost meth that dealers have more of it than they know what to do with. Under pressure from traffickers to unload large quantities, law enforcement officials say, dealers are even offering meth to customers on credit. In Portland, the drug has made inroads in black neighborhoods, something experienced narcotics investigators say was unheard of five years ago.
“I have been involved with meth for the last 25 years. A wholesale plummet of price per pound, combined with a huge increase of purity, tells me they have perfected the production or manufacturing of methamphetamine,” said Steven Bell, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “They have figured out the chemical reactions to get the best bang for their bucks.”
Nearly 100 percent pure and about $5 a hit, the new meth is all the more difficult for users to resist. “We’re seeing a lot of longtime addicts who used crack cocaine switch to meth,” said Branden Combs, a Portland officer assigned to the street crimes unit. “You ask them about it, and they’ll say: ‘Hey, it’s half the price, and it’s good quality.’”
Nationally, nearly 6,000 people died from stimulant use — mostly meth — in 2015, a 255 percent increase from 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of the nation’s drug overdose toll that was attributed to stimulants inched up to 11 percent of the deaths.
United States Customs and Border Protection statistics show that in the past five years, the amount of meth seized has tripled, while the seizures for other drugs have declined or had only modest increases.
In Oregon, 232 people died from meth use in 2016, nearly twice as many as died from heroin — and three times as many as died from meth 10 years before, according to the state Department of Health.
Between 2011 and 2015, meth arrests were the only type of drug arrests in Portland to increase, and meth has the highest correlation with serious crimes. More than one in five burglars and nearly 40 percent of car thieves were also charged with meth crimes, according to the Portland Police Bureau.
“Heroin is a depressant. It shuts you down and you’re not capable of doing a whole lot,” Sergeant Kubic said. Meth is a stimulant: “Tweakers are jacked up. They have lowered inhibitions and are awake 24/7, running around at night, so burglaries become easier.”
Eric, a former dancer in Portland, who asked that his last name not be published, said he now worked as a “professional booster.” Pawnshop owners give him “laundry lists” of coveted items, and he goes out and steals them, getting 50 cents on the dollar.