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Methamphetamine remains top drug of choice in Iowa

December 25, 2016

CEDAR RAPIDS — While the number of methamphetamine labs across Iowa has plummeted, Iowans’ appetite for the addictive drug — particularly high purity, ice meth — remains high.

“We’ve had a huge influx of ice methamphetamine from the West Coast and from Mexico,” said Dan Stepleton, special agent-in-charge with the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement. “Our ice cases are way up and the amount of seizures we’re having this year is pretty much unbelievable.”

“It’s pounds and pounds on our meth cases we’re working.”

According to the 2017 Iowa Drug Control Strategy report released earlier this month by the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, there were 1,500 responses to meth labs by state and local authorities in 2004. Last year, that number was down to 151 and incomplete data for 2016 shows only 65 lab responses.

However, additional data shows meth remains a top drug of choice in Iowa:

— Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement agents seized more than 120,000 grams of meth in 2015, up from more than 80,000 grams in 2014. In 2012, state narcotics agents seized less than 20,000 grams. This year saw a considerable drop in grams seized, 55,062 grams, according to the drug control strategy report. Nonetheless, that figure would be third highest over the last decade.

— There have been 517 meth-related prison admissions in 2016. While that is nearly 200 fewer than the 711 meth-related prison admissions in 2004, inmates serving time on meth-related charges has climbed considerably since 2009 when there were 304 such admissions.

— The percentage of adults and juveniles admitted to substance abuse treatment programs who identify meth as their primary substance of abuse reached an all-time high in 2016. Of the 47,309 clients served by Iowa treatment centers this year, 17.6 percent of them identified meth as their primary substance of abuse. Only marijuana — 25.1 percent — and alcohol — 47.1 percent — ranked higher in the state.

“(Meth) remains a huge challenge here in the state of Iowa,” said Steven Lukan, director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “We certainly see it as a major driver of prison admissions.”

Drug trafficking

Stepleton said users are opting to buy their meth from drug trafficking organizations rather than make it themselves for a number of reasons. First, laws in Iowa, such as 2005’s pseudoephedrine law, have made it more difficult to obtain the ingredients necessary to cook meth and require more people to obtain those ingredients without raising suspicions from law enforcement. Five to 20 grams of homemade meth split between five or six people doesn’t go very far, Stepleton noted.

Homemade meth is also only 20 to 55 percent pure, he said. Ice, on the other hand, is much purer.

“The ice that’s coming into Iowa right now is in the 90th percentile for purity,” Stepleton said, noting one ounce — or 28 grams — goes for about $1,200. “If you pool your money, you can get some pretty pure ice. It’s a lot better product as far as the people that consume methamphetamine are concerned.”

Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Robert Collins said the statewide meth trends have been reflected locally. Authorities here aren’t seeing as many labs, but the drug continues to be an issue. Collins said Cedar Rapids saw 280 meth-related charges in 2016, compared with 241 in 2015.

“We have gone up some,” Collins said. “It hasn’t gone up an extreme amount.”

Cedar Rapids authorities cleaned up 44 meth labs in 2015, but only 19 this year, he added.

Collins said the meth they are seeing these days is ice meth. Homemade meth has a “mushier, opaque look to it,” whereas ice meth has clearer, glassy appearance.

Collins said he suspects those who were making meth before have found it’s no longer worth the risk. Laws in Iowa have successfully curbed most of the larger labs, though smaller “one pot” style labs still exist. Instead, meth addicts can simply buy the drugs they need.

“You can just get a connection where you can buy this stuff,” he said. “That’s what people are telling us. That’s what we’re hearing from the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration).”

The meth is being moved throughout the country and state by drug trafficking organization, such as Mexican drug cartels, Stepleton said. Suppliers sell it to midlevel dealers who, in turn, sell it to small level dealers.

“They have tentacles everywhere,” Stepleton said. “They’re through Iowa. They’re everywhere.”

Supply and demand

Collins said meth users are purchasing amounts for themselves and selling the rest to support their habits. Some will drive to different areas to pick up their product and others are having meth mailed directly to Cedar Rapids.

“They’re making connections and they’re literally having it shipped in,” he said.

Collins said when police do make a meth arrest, they are usually finding a gram or two at a time, personal use amounts. Meth users far outnumber the dealers in the city, he said. But, picking up a meth user can sometimes allow investigators to work up the chain and nab a bigger fish.

“Anytime we come across something that’s just simple possession of methamphetamine, we try to see who is selling the methamphetamine,” Collins said. “Then we try to take out the dealers. … Then we get that person and say, ‘You want to talk to us about where you are getting your methamphetamine?’ ”

Cedar Rapids police work closely with the local Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force, which has two Cedar Rapids officers as members, Collins said. They share information gleaned from arrests and investigative techniques such as drug buys and surveillance. The DEA can then continue to work cases on a national and international level.

Collins said the cartels will never stop selling as long as there is a demand.

“The only way to get rid of the supply is to get rid of the demand,” he said. “Everyone needs to work together to get people to stop using this garbage.”

Driving crime

The methamphetamine trade drives other crimes, as well. Collins said increases in burglaries and thefts are often tied to drug users who are stealing items to sell and support their habits. Stepleton said they are also seeing increases in home invasion robberies of drug dealers.

“There’s always going to be people that don’t want to work in this world,” he said. “They’re going to want to take any easy step forward. Right now, that is stealing from drug dealers. … There is a lot of that going on right now in Iowa and everywhere. People are getting robbed for their drugs and money.”

Stepleton said drug trafficking organizations are using different techniques to stay ahead of law enforcement, but authorities are learning new things with each investigation. For instance, authorities now know transactions are taking place over shared bank accounts and trafficking organizations have also taken to rewriting gift cards to essentially serve as cash cards with tens of thousands of dollars on them. Seizing these altered cards and having the appropriate equipment to read them has proved to be a challenge, Stepleton said.

“It’s tough to seize 60 gift cards from people,” he said. “you have to have a nexus back to drugs, even if it’s $400,000 on the gift cards.”

There are also efforts in Congress to have more oversight on international shipments of illegal drugs, Lukan said.

“Trying to curb the shipments is a real challenge,” Lukan said. “You have postal inspectors and others who are really overworked.”

Efforts can be made at home, as well. Lukan said people — particularly parents — should learn about the dangers of meth and try to encourage healthy behavior in their children. He suggests parents check out the resources at www.drugfreeinfo.org.

“When people find out what this does to your health and well-being, people are really turned off by it,” he said. “Those are things we need to continue to work on.”

Iowa Drug Control Strategy report highlights

Methamphetamine is not the only drug discussed in the 2017 Iowa Drug Control Strategy report. According to the report:

  • The percentage of Iowans in treatment programs who list heroin as their primary drug reached an all-time high, 2.5 percent.
  • Marijuana remains the top drug of abuse for Iowans in treatment programs; 76 percent cited it as their drug of choice.
  • Nationally, 16 percent of Americans report binge drinking compared to 21.4 percent of Iowans.
  • Cases of high-powered heroin and synthetic opioid mixtures submitted to the state crime lab have continued to grow. There have been 26 such cases reported in 2016, up from 17 in 2015 and zero in 2014.

The report also shares positive trends in the state:

  • Iowans have the second lowest rate — 6.27 percent — of illegal drug use in the country. South Dakota has the lowest rate of 5.82 percent. The national average is 9.77 percent.
  • Opioid overdose deaths fell for the second straight year in 2015, with 58. There were 97 in 2013.
  • Fewer 11th grade students in Iowa report drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco.
  • Read: Iowa’s Drug Control Strategy 2017

http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/report-meth-remains-top-drug-of-choice-in-iowa-20161224