A tale of methamphetamine, drug cartels and
an amatThe Politics of Meth
In Tempe, Arizona, in a neighborhood made up of the kind of strip malls and food franchises that are becoming the interchangeable building blocks of 21st-century America, there‘s a store called Underground Books. Inside, the bookstore offers comics, survivalist tomes, the usual array of anti-government tracts, and books that don’t fall into easy categories, such as a Japanese volume of photos of bandaged women. But the store‘s best-selling writer is a man who goes by the pseudonym Uncle Fester, author of such classics as Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture (now in its fifth edition) and Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture.
”It makes me uneasy,“ a heavily tattooed sales clerk explains. ”But this is free speech. What can you do? Usually, I can tell at a glance when someone’s coming in to buy it. I just point them over to the proper aisle.“
In Jim Hogshire‘s introduction to Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture, he suggests that Uncle Fester’s books embody ”true Yankee ingenuity,“ and recommends they be put ”on your shelf next to the works of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.“ But unfortunately, the introduction continues, in the ‘90s ”America came to depend on Mexican laboratories for its crank needs, putting millions at the mercy of foreigners. Foreigners who don’t necessarily share [our] values.“ So it is the duty of every patriotic American, the writer concludes, to make meth with Uncle Fester‘s formulas.
And so go the geopolitics of d-methamphetamine, the only hard drug produced in America, the rapidly spreading drug that, as the many posters and billboards attest, is now seen as a serious health problem from West Hollywood to the Bootheel of Missouri.
But after spending weeks on the trail of meth across America, I’ve come to believe that its story transcends the usual angst-and-hypodermic tales of addiction, because the story of methamphetamine is only incidentally about the drug itself, only incidentally about people ruining their lives. Primarily, it‘s about why meth has spread so far so quickly in the past few years, and that’s mainly a story about what this country is and is becoming — which is to say, like almost everything else about us in this era of globalization, it‘s a business story.
The Dichotomy of Meth
In a low, unmarked building in Lancaster, L.A. Impact, the county’s multi-agency meth-lab task force, operates from an office decorated with NO TWEAKER posters. One Thursday afternoon, an officer from the task force takes me in his pickup truck into the nearby desert, where the widely scattered roads still have city street numbers, such as 210th Avenue, but where there can be half a mile or more between shacks. With the wind blowing, it feels a bit like being in an outtake from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind: We are looking for something alien, yet close to home. Our destination is a tumbledown shed where, some months earlier, a large meth lab, a superlab, operated. The lab closed down before the police found it, but after it moved away, local people came and dug up many cubic yards of dirt where it once stood. ”They take the dirt and try to extract any meth residue that might have spilled out,“ the officer explains to us. ”We call that a dirt lab.“
Even with the superlab long gone, along with a lot of the earth that it stood on, the shed reeks of strong chemicals. ”That headache you have now,“ the officer explains, ”you get that every time you visit one of these places.“ As we stand in the ruined shed, headachy, looking into the pit of the dirt lab, the Close Encounters feeling becomes more intense, as if we are viewing the spot where some great force has risen out of its grave, and now is loose upon our land.
On the drive back, the officer mentions that there is another, far more common kind of meth lab than the large-scale superlabs of the sort we‘ve just seen. It’s a type cops officially refer to as a ”user lab,“ and unofficially as a ”mom-and-pop lab,“ or ”Beavis and Butt-head lab.“ We drive by a lonely, abandoned house. ”That‘s the kind of place where you could find that kind of lab,“ the officer says. These are the labs of the local news, of dangerously strung-out tweakers, of fires and explosions in house trailers, of endangered children. ”By now, the Lancaster Fire Department knows that if they see glassware in the ashes, they should give us a call,“ the officer explains. Then he adds: ”Glassware and pornography.“ Pornography? ”Yeah,“ says the officer.
And there you have the two aspects of meth production: superlabs run by secretive drug cartels and, increasingly, the smaller, more slapdash output of people who believe that if John Wayne were alive today, he’d be making meth in his kitchen.
In 1998, law enforcement across America seized around 5,700 meth labs. According to Guy Hargreaves of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, ”We‘re actually facing two problems. There’s the methamphetamine problem. And then there‘s the clandestine-lab problem. And when you put it together, it seems to be a case where the supply is actually driving the demand.“
It seems to be driving it ever eastward, out of Southern and Central California, in diminishing intensity. If you look at the DEA’s map of labs seized per state in 1998, 1,784 were in California. Mississippi Valley states like Iowa and Arkansas had 339 and 445, respectively. But meth seems to be only just arriving on the eastern seaboard, with only nine labs found in Pennsylvania, and only two in New York state. a
Early on in working on a television documentary about meth, my colleagues and I spend the afternoon with a 19-year-old methamphetamine addict from the South Bay named Amber. We meet her for lunch, at Fred Segal in Santa Monica. Amber tells us that she wants to be a model. She has the look, but her skin is pallid. ”Recently, a little boy saw me without my makeup,“ Amber tells us. ”He said that I look like I‘m dead.“ Initially, Amber seems okay — though, as we find out, that’s because she‘s just shot up in Segal’s restroom. Then, in the reverse way of meth, as the drug wears off after a few hours, Amber begins acting stoned, her speech slurring. She tells us that she can‘t remember when she last slept. Two nights ago? Three? After a while, to keep from passing out, she has to shoot up again, and so ducks into the restroom of a franchise coffee shop in the Beverly Hills area. Because of my Y-chromosomes, I wait nervously outside, but my female colleagues go in with her to observe. When they come out, they look shaken, but Amber looks fine. I hand her the chai latte that she ordered before going in. She sips it calmly before taking her leave of us to drift back out into the world of L.A. on no sleep.
The stimulant methamphetamine is the artificially synthesized version of the human body’s natural adrenal hormone, epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline. In the short term, it makes you, not high, strictly speaking, but more: more capable, more powerful, more attractive, more clever, more sexy, more smart, more efficient, more happy. It boosts you into the euphoria of superlatives. And initially, it can be tough to see what‘s wrong with that.
”It feels like jumping out of an airplane for 12 straight hours,“ one meth fan tells me, which doesn’t make it seem appealing, but I can sense his enthusiasm.
About a hundred years ago, methamphetamine was first produced from a weaker stimulant called ephedrine. Ephedrine is the active ingredient in an herb called mahuang, which had been known for centuries in China, in much the same way that coca leaves and opium poppies were known long before late-19th-century pharmacologists were able to process their active ingredients into cocaine and heroin, the world‘s other two hard drugs. With cocaine and heroin, society quickly realized the drugs’ dangers and banned even prescription versions. The dangers of methamphetamine took a little longer to notice. During World War II, methamphetamine and its milder variation, amphetamine, were made available to the soldiers of the United States, Germany and Japan as a way to keep them brave and alert. Afterward, pharmaceutical methamphetamine became popular, legally or illegally, with dieters, truck drivers and students cramming for exams. It was particularly popular in the ‘50s and ’60s, when even President John Kennedy had a prescription. You can still get a prescription for amphetamine if you have attention-deficit disorder or suffer from narcolepsy.
At first, meth apparently can make ordinary life vividly engrossing. People take it to do boring, repetitive work. People take it to work out. People take it to clean their closets or to pick the lint out of their carpets — one piece at time, by hand.
Meth can also stimulate increased sexual activity. Perhaps you‘ve seen the posters around L.A. that read SEX + METH = AIDS. Users sometimes have sex or masturbate until they injure themselves. ”I’ve had people come in after taking it on Friday, staying up, masturbating the entire weekend, without coming,“ says Dr. Alex Stalcup, a Bay Area physician and one of the nation‘s leading specialists in meth addiction. ”Medically speaking, I’d term that blue balls to the max.“
But mainly, the people who take enough meth end up not sleeping — one night, two, five, more, according to physicians who treat hardcore addicts. And as any parent of a newborn can attest, not sleeping takes its toll.
”The paradox of meth,“ continues Dr. Stalcup, ”is that it seems to take away whatever you want from it. You take it for sex, you can‘t have an orgasm. You take it to work, you become more and more inefficient.“
Biologically speaking, adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone. And so at the extremes — and meth seems to quickly go to extremes — there is aggression, belligerence, paranoia. It’s too much — too much of everything. People see through walls. The CIA follows them around. ”We saw Waldo,“ one meth user told us.
And those are the minor problems.
The health-care experts I interview for this story keep saying, ”You can see longtime heroin addicts, but you never see any longtime meth addicts.“ I hear plenty of horror stories about meth, about people on meth binges — tweakers — killing friends, relatives, strangers. Several of the police officers killed in the line of duty in L.A. County in recent years were allegedly murdered by tweakers. Different people tell the same anecdote about a man in New Mexico or Arizona who cut off his son‘s head and threw it out the window while driving down the highway.
But unless you believe the Reefer Madness theory of drug use, unless you believe that a drug spreads itself through its irresistibly addictive power, the question arises: Why did a drug that’s been around for so long suddenly start to boom in popularity within the last few years?
Meth As the Emblem of Globalization
What seems to have happened is textbook Harvard Business School.
Originally, in the ‘70s and ’80s, places like the deserts outside of Lancaster, San Bernardino and northern San Diego County were home to a different kind of illegal meth manufacture. Back then, groups associated with biker gangs using a precursor different from ephedrine made a less-potent form of meth, called d-l-methamphetamine, because it contained both the d, right-hand isomer, the strong one, and the l, left-hand isomer, which is not very potent.
Back then, cocaine was the illegal stimulant of the middle classes. The market for d-l-methamphetamine as an illegally manufactured crystal that you could snort or swallow, or, if you were really hardcore, inject or smoke, had a limited clientele, low-class white people of a certain social set — the people authorities refer to as ”trailer trash,“ although never on camera or for attribution.
As the ‘80s wore on, the crack epidemic began to make the middle classes see coke in a different light. At the same time, business began to go truly global. By the time the Berlin Wall came down, among the leading global enterprises were the Colombian drug cartels, vertically integrated corporations for the export of cocaine to the U.S. Originally, the coke came in via smuggling routes through the Caribbean to Florida. But after heavy U.S. interdiction efforts in that area, the Colombian cartels were obliged to seek new smuggling routes. They chose Mexico and, in the process, built the Mexican cartels into what are now being called the largest criminal organizations that the world has ever seen, cartels not only allegedly capable of corrupting large sectors of Mexico’s government, but also of challenging the Colombian cartels head on.
As the Mexican cartels grew in power, the problem they faced was simple: Coca leaves don‘t grow in Mexico. In search of a stimulant to replace Colombian cocaine, they discovered that by simply knocking an oxygen molecule off ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in over-the-counter cold remedies like Sudafed, you can produce pure d-methamphetamine, a much more powerful drug than the d-l-methamphetamine being turned out in biker labs. So that’s what they did. They started clandestine meth labs in Mexico, smuggled meth up into the U.S. But like any global business, the Mexican cartels seek efficiency, so they ultimately chose a favorite technique of multinational corporations — offshore production. They moved some of their ”technical-support people“ into California and made our state the meth- manufacturing center of the world.
Uncle Fester Leads the Counterattack
If one of the problems with globalization is that it creates a worldwide economic system that is unable to differentiate between licit and illicit enterprises, facilitating the move of Mexican national organizations into the California meth business, so then, the rise of small-time meth manufacture can be seen as a kind of felonious Pat Buchanan backlash.
In the last several years, low-income white Americans, Uncle Fester‘s people, have begun lashing back so hard that the number of small meth labs seized across the U.S. has gone up by roughly a third each year. ”I’m all for free speech,“ complains Guy Hargreaves of the DEA, ”but the formula for meth is too easy to find. It‘s all over the Internet.“ And it’s in Uncle Fester‘s books.
A chemist in Green Bay, Wisconsin, named Steve Preisler is identified as the author of the Uncle Fester books. But while Preisler claims that he was the original innovator of easy-to-use meth formulas, he acknowledges that ”it’s a team effort to keep the field advancing,“ and that coming up with new cooking recipes ”tends to be a group effort.“
A reliable source introduced us to a man he says supplies cooking tips for the Uncle Fester books, a white guy in his late 30s, whom I‘ll call Tab. Tab has been a cooker in a white ”brotherhood“ that has been making big batches of meth since the ’80s, when it was under the control of white organized-crime groups linked to West Coast biker gangs. From years of absorbing meth through his skin as he cooked it, Tab seems to share our reality at only a few points, going in and out with a kind of tidal rhythm. As to Uncle Fester and his books, Tab is enigmatic. ”All I can say is that those books were written because we want the drug spread worldwide.“
Tab seems like just the usual delusional, vague longtime meth abuser, but afterward our source vouches for him again. ”Tab acts paranoid, because that‘s what long-term exposure to meth does to you. But he’s the real thing. You just don‘t want to go there, though. You don’t want to follow up and meet his friends. They‘ll kill him, and they’ll kill you.“
The Technical-Support People
Meanwhile, it is a Tuesday night in El Monte. In the front yard of a two-story apartment building, 11 men sit in handcuffs, their backs against the front fence. Agents from the California Department of Justice‘s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE) mill about.
None of the detainees speaks English. The youngest says he’s 17, but he doesn‘t know his own date of birth. Like almost everyone arrested in superlab operations, they are from Sinaloa and Michoacan. And like almost everyone who gets arrested, they are medium-to-low-level people in the meth business, what the BNE agents term the ”technical-support people.“ The people who allegedly call the shots are not in this country.
Here in southern L.A. County, it is the job of the technical-support people to gather the precursor chemicals and the glassware needed to make meth — a huge operation in itself. The main chemicals are red phosphorus, iodine and, of course, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — substances that are not illegal in and of themselves, but that can be illegal to possess in quantity. a
So where the U.S. efforts against cocaine and heroin begin with attempts to eradicate coca and poppy fields in Latin America, the BNE’s efforts against meth are directed against the quasilegal precursor chemicals. In the early ‘90s, Mexican cartels were importing pure ephedrine from Germany, the Czech Republic, China and India in 40-gallon tins. ”We’d have huge shipments going to post-office boxes in Mexico,“ explains a DEA agent. ”From there, they‘d just smuggle it across the border.“ So the U.S. State Department pressed for foreign export controls of pure ephedrine. In turn, the cartels switched to using cases of ephedrine tablets, in 1,000-tablet bottles. After the DEA shut down that option, the cartels switched to cases of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in 24-tablet bottles, allegedly obtained at $1,000 per case, from ”rogue“ chemical supply houses in New Jersey, and from unscrupulous convenience-store owners.
”It takes them too much effort to individually open thousands of 24-tablet bottles,“ says a BNE agent, ”so now a whole cottage industry has grown up just to cut the bottoms off the bottles and extract the ephedrine pills. They’ve even developed their own machinery to do it.“
Yet Another Meth Capital
As meth spreads eastward from California, it seems to spark a kind of perverse civic pride. Just as every tourist inn of a certain age on the eastern seaboard claims that George Washington once slept there, people in many states in the Midwest are quick to tell you that their state is the meth capital of America.
The first Midwestern state to lay claim to the ”meth capital“ claim was Iowa, because meth seems to have followed migrant farmworkers up the interstate out of Los Angeles and on to Iowa farm country. Drug-enforcement agents there show me bags, kilo after kilo, of meth that they intercepted from trucks on the interstate. ”This load here,“ an agent says, ”what happened was that the truck driver had the meth stored by the heater, and the fumes got to him. Made him so paranoid, he thought we were following him. So he turned himself in.“
But according to the DEA, thanks to its efforts to restrict precursor chemicals, the purity of the cartel meth has been declining. In 1995, it was 60 percent. Now it‘s 29 percent. That inspires addicts to make their own, following the formulas from the Internet or Uncle Fester. In Iowa, there were 31 meth mom-and-pop labs seized in ’96. There were 63 in ‘97, and 339 in ’98. It would seem that a large group of people without the ability to create their own dot-com start-up companies have joined the nation‘s entrepreneurial boom by going into the meth business.
Late on a Sunday afternoon in October, while working on the meth documentary, we hit the malls in Des Moines, Iowa. In the food court at the first place we stop, a wild guy in his 20s recognizes my colleague Serena from TV, and hails her loudly. ”This is the meth capital of the United States,“ he tells us, and explains how he once spent 30 days in the hospital because of it. His pupils are pinpoints, and he has the exaggerated movements I’ve come to associate with meth abusers, but he tells us that he has stopped using it and isn‘t on it now.
We get to the second mall just before closing time. Serena chats with a sales clerk who thinks she can help us. She gives us a phone number, which we call. A few minutes later, a fellow named Justin comes by in a pickup truck. He was a longtime user, but has been, for over a year, in recovery. Now he works trying to help other addicts to quit. We follow him over to a shabby one-story frame house in the east part of town. Justin goes inside and comes back out with a cooker, a guy around 40, whose wife and kids are inside the house. After a while, the cooker decides, against his self-interest, to drive with Justin back to our hotel. We interview him in my room. From nervousness or exposure to chemicals, he breathes heavily, like Darth Vader. ”I started doing it just so I wouldn’t have to pay for it. When I saw how much money I could make, I quit my job. I can take $300 and turn it into $2,000 in an afternoon.“ Both Justin and the cooker agree that the police need to do more to stop the problem.
Through processes that presumably involve electronic eavesdropping, spy satellites and agents in foreign countries — techniques and sources that they don‘t usually share with journalists — both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have concluded that meth manufacture in California is directed by Mexican drug lords.
”I don’t want to use the term cartel for what we‘re seeing in California,“ says Vic Lacey of the BNE, ”because they’re not like the Colombian cartels. They‘re associations of people who know each other, because they’re all from the same places in Mexico. They get their backing from Mexican cartels, but they‘re more like groupings of people doing the same jobs. And they’re hard to penetrate. We don‘t have that many informants, and the ones we have tend to have short life expectancies.“
The BNE guys are able ultimately, though, to arrange for us to speak with one of their informants. We interview him in the stairwell of a parking garage, videotaping only his hands and his back. He appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s, and has been in the U.S. since the early ’90s. ”I‘m very nervous,“ he tells us. He gets more nervous every time a car passes. ”What would happen if your identity were discovered?“ my colleague asks him. ”They’d kill me and my family too,“ he says. ”Have you seen people be killed?“ my colleague asks. ”Yes,“ he says, ”it‘s bad.“
The informant helps clear up my main question: If everything is done in California, in what way, exactly, is the California meth business tied to drug cartels in Mexico? ”Everyone knows that the big bosses are in Mexico,“ he explains. ”They never put their hands into the labs.“ As he describes it, the Mexican cartels work like venture capitalists do in Silicon Valley (to name another hallmark of California and globalization). They put up the money for the operations, and they expect a certain return on their investments. But after that, the profits belong to the people in California making the meth. The informant says that the first lab he worked in made 15 pounds of meth a day, five days a week. They needed about $60,000 to $70,000 in precursor chemicals for each batch, but once they made it, it could be sold wholesale for around $180,000. The informant says his cut was around $5,000 to $7,000 a week, but his health was ruined from exposure to the chemicals. ”But as long as there are poor people who want to do this work, every time someone is arrested, someone will take his place. Because there’s money.“
What‘s Cooking in Your Neighborhood?
According to the DEA, in 1992 there were two meth labs seized in the state of Missouri. In 1998, there were 679.
On the Interstate just north of the town of Sikeston, Missouri, a large billboard asks, ”What’s Cooking in Your Neighborhood?“ If the answer is meth, you are urged to call the toll-free number listed on the billboard. A skull and crossbones is depicted on each side of the headline. This part of the state is known as the Bootheel, that southeastern corner that projects down into Arkansas, with Tennessee to the east across the Mississippi River. It‘s cotton country. The accents are more Southern than Northern. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Bootheel has the highest number of small meth labs, per capita, of anywhere in the United States.
Sergeant Kevin Glaser of the Missouri Highway Patrol is a low-key fellow whose calm demeanor makes him stand out from almost everyone else involved with meth. He drives us along a small highway out of Sikeston. ”We’ve busted several labs in this area,“ he explains. We pull up to a field where an abandoned house trailer is parked, the site of a small meth lab that Glaser raided two weeks earlier. A man from the nearest farm spies us and comes over. ”They brought that trailer here, must have been back before the start of dove season,“ he tells us. ”I never smelled anything, but I thought, ‘I’ll bet that‘s a damned meth lab.’“ Inside, the trailer is a mess. ”This isn‘t bad-looking compared with some of the places we find labs,“ Glaser comments. The lab was on a table in the kitchen. Some cookers in the Midwest use a technique called the Nazi Cold Cook, supposedly after a formula used to make meth in Nazi Germany. ”We can trace all the labs in this area back to one individual,“ says Glaser. ”He moved into the region and taught folks how to do it.“ Unlike the techniques used by cartels and small cookers in California, the Nazi cook doesn’t require heat or red phosphorus or iodine. Instead, it uses lithium camera batteries, Coleman camping fuel and anhydrous ammonia, the fertilizer that stands in large white tanks in farmyards all around the Midwest. In a way, anhydrous ammonia is the true elixir of poor white rebellion. You can mix it with Sudafed and tractor-starter fluid and strain it through coffee filters in a kitchen meth lab, or you can mix it with kerosene and blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
So where the BNE in California spends its time tracking down large shipments of precursor chemicals, Sergeant Glaser has to make sure that local convenience stores know they can‘t sell more than three bottles of Sudafed to a customer. As a result, local cookers have to go around ”smurfing“ ingredients — either sending multiple friends in to buy from the local Wal-Mart, or else driving from convenience store to convenience store around the region, whenever they want to cook.
Sergeant Glaser arranges for us to interview a couple of his informants. Their 5-year-old son is only now learning to talk. ”When he was 2,“ the woman explains to us, ”he’d sit on the floor with a pencil and a cup, pretending to draw up dope and shoot it. Because that‘s all he’d ever seen.“
That evening, we go into Lambert‘s Restaurant, ”home of the throwed roll.“ Inside, the waiters are throwing dinner rolls to the diners. We eat barbecue and field rolls while Serena walks around, working the restaurant until she comes up with a meth user. The meth user looks like one, now that we know what they look like, particularly in the definition at the back of his jaw, which has been made prominent due to the continuous clenching of teeth. He takes us to his brother’s house. The brother is even leaner and meaner looking. It‘s like in Nintendo. At each level, the monster gets more formidable. The brother’s speech is slowed way beyond simple slurring. He is drinking beer, smoking joints. The brother‘s bright-eyed girlfriend explains how she once left him for his best friend, because his best friend was cooking meth, and whoever a makes meth has money and status and power. If we were in a coffee shop in Mountain View, California, she’d be telling us how she‘d left him for someone who had an Internet start-up.
The next night, we follow the brothers and their girlfriends an hour down the highway to Poplar Bluff. All four are high on meth, which they have at first confided to us, then denied. Already, after only a week on the road, we’re exhausted as we drive behind them, but we‘re also excited. And after a while, we begin to understand the deadly appeal of a drug that makes you stay up past exhaustion. It’s the busyness. After all, what is success in this age, except for being too busy, too intense? We live in an age of billionaires, but they‘re not the idle rich. It’s the age of the busy rich. Meth apparently imparts no feeling of ironic detachment, no transcendence, nor any of the other feelings of other illegal drugs that are supposed to take you out of your life and your environs. Meth seems to push users further into where they already are, but it makes them feel purposeful, involved, too engrossed to sleep. That is, apparently, successful.
In Poplar Bluff, we pull onto a suburban-looking street of small one-story houses. The people inside one of them, the people we have come to see, are cousins of the brothers. But as we pull up, they are fighting, and we can‘t enter. We wait in the dark on the front lawn, chatting with some 16-year-old neighbor girls who use meth. One of the brothers explains to me how he used to drink a fifth of whiskey a night when he was 16. ”But it made me too violent. My daddy was real relieved when I switched to pot.“ When we finally go inside the house, the 27-year-old cousin, who is facing 120 days in jail for probation violation, wants us to videotape her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son before she sends them to bed. Her 22-year-old brother, who is sitting down the couch from her, is the top of the Nintendo hierarchy, the complete meth monster, with muscular forearms and sunken eyes. Our original contacts, the two brothers and their girlfriends, also take seats on the couch. The house, owned and maintained by the cousins’ mother, is adorned with mid-American knickknacks. The whole scene is completely ordinary and completely nightmarish. It‘s just another Friday night with Meth Family Robinson.
According to the DEA, in 1996 there were four labs seized in Georgia. In 1998, the last year for which there are complete numbers, there were 26.
Source Country, USA
Once the Mexican national organizations have assembled the precursor chemicals, they move them to the superlabs. Some of these are in the deserts of Southern California, outside Lancaster or Riverside or San Bernardino. But most of them are in the Central Valley of California, agribusiness country.
”What Colombia is to cocaine, the Central Valley of California is to meth labs. We’re the source country,“ explains Bob Pennal, the BNE special agent supervisor in charge of anti-meth-lab operations out of Fresno. ”It‘s perfect for them here. A big farm might have dozens of houses on it for farmworkers. The owners never check. Someone from one of these Mexican national operations approaches a farmworker and offers money for the use of his house. Then they set up a superlab and cook meth in 25-to-100-pound batches.“
While we are talking with Pennal in his office, he gets a call from the Fresno police. They’ve been tracking a load of red phosphorus and iodine up from L.A. County and have arrested the two men transporting it. We follow Pennal up to the arrest site, about an hour‘s drive north of town — as we found out, Pennal spends a lot of time in the car. After a few hours of standing around handcuffed, talking with the police, the two men agree to ”roll“ — to tell where they were taking the chemicals. By now, it’s dark. We follow along as the two men direct the police to a farmhouse at the far end of a dead-end road — the perfect site for a meth lab. We drive by with our lights off, but can‘t see anything from the outside.
After a quick meal from Carl’s Jr., Pennal assembles 20 or so BNE agents and police officers. They don‘t have a warrant, so they decide to do a ”knock and talk.“ They’ll drive up, knock on the door, explain that they suspect that someone is cooking meth on the premises, and ask permission to look around. Then we head over to the suspected lab site. The owner is a white guy in his early 50s, a meth abuser with a long history of arrests for petty offenses. He agrees to the search, but keeps insisting that he doesn‘t know what’s in the barn 50 feet from the trailer he lives in. When Pennal and his team enter the barn, they find a superlab operation, with around 40 pounds of meth in solution in white tubs. The actual cookers are nowhere to be seen — presumably when the red phosphorus and iodine didn‘t show up on time, they became suspicious and fled. But the owner is facing a long prison sentence for renting them his barn.
The next day, we return to the site of the bust. All the superlab equipment has been taken out of the barn and laid out, to be dusted for fingerprints prior to being hauled off as toxic waste. Here are the empty cases of off-brand ephedrine tablets. And here are the boxes that held the Martha Stewart bedsheets — favored for straining meth because of their high thread count, but also, suggests one of Pennal’s team, because the Mexican national trafficking organizations simply like her cachet. ”Who doesn‘t like her?“ my colleague Serena muses, looking down at the boxes. ”We all love Martha.“
According to meth expert Stalcup, the reason that the drug is so addictive is that prolonged meth use can damage the pleasure receptors in the brain to the point where it takes two to five years after quitting to simply feel normal. ”Imagine two to five years of boredom,“ Stalcup says. ”Or depression,“ Serena suggests. ”Want-to-kill-yourself depression,“ Stalcup agrees. ”People do kill themselves.“ So addicts keep taking meth not because they’re physically addicted, as heroin addicts are, but because, without meth, it‘s impossible to enjoy anything.
Back in L.A., we catch up with Amber, the 19-year-old meth addict we met early on in the story. In the month since we’ve seen her, she‘s been arrested, sent to detox and let out. She is shooting more than ever. ”I knew that I was going to do it as soon as I got out,“ Amber says. ”I was looking forward to it. The beast is getting hungrier.“
True Life: I’m on Crystal Meth, produced by Serena Altschul, Mitchell Koss, Laura Ling and Patrick Lope for Channel One News and MTV News, airs repeatedly this month on MTV.eur chemist named Fester.