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Back to Archives | Back to April 2005 Contents 

Methamphetamine:A National Response

By John P. Walters, Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Washington, D.C.

Meth Lab
Photograph courtesy Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Police Department

n recent months, newspapers and television news specials across the United States chronicled the devastation that methamphetamine use and production impose on individuals, families, and communities. The 2003 U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 12.3 million Americans ages 12 and older tried methamphetamine at least once in their lifetimes and 1.3 million reported using meth in the past year. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, drug abuse-related emergency department visits involving amphetamines and methamphetamines increased 54 percent between 1995 and 2002. Methamphetamine, along with other addictive substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, can ruin lives, wreck communities, and destroy hope.

Against this seemingly bleak backdrop of clandestine laboratories and methamphetamine addiction, however, there is good news. Across the United States, drug use has declined in the past three years. The 2004 Monitoring the Future survey, an ongoing survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, shows a 17 percent decrease in overall teenage drug use compared to 2001. This translates into 600,000 fewer teens using illegal drugs today than there were in 2001. The same survey indicates that methamphetamine use by teenagers has fallen 25 percent from 2001-surely, a significant reduction in demand that bodes well for our long-term plans to disrupt the methamphetamine market.

Although these figures are heartening and indicate that policies and programs in place are working, there is still much to be done. Methamphetamine is the most widely used and covertly produced synthetic drug in the United States. According to data released by the National Drug Intelligence Center, 36 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies identify methamphetamine as their greatest drug threat. Agencies in the western states were much more likely to identify the methamphetamine as their greatest threat than agencies in the south and northeast states. Close to 91 percent of reporting jurisdictions in the Pacific region cited meth as their greatest threat, compared to just 2.7 percent for the northeast/Atlantic regions. Unlike marijuana, for example, methamphetamine use is not a significant problem in every section of the United States. It is apparent that some communities, more than others, face the challenge of stemming the spread of the drug.

Meth Labs
In the United States, many small clandestine labs operate out of houses, hotel rooms, or the trunks of cars. Although most clandestine meth laboratories in the United States are small, law enforcement believes much, if not most, of the methamphetamine consumed in this country is cooked in large labs, often called "super labs," operating inside and outside U.S. borders. These super labs, defined as labs capable of producing at least 10 pounds of methamphetamine in a single production cycle, are operated by sophisticated meth cooks, frequently in Mexico, or by operators with links to organized drug trafficking networks or organizations.

Local and state law enforcement officials discover and dismantle most of the meth labs identified by law enforcement. A meth lab is a hazardous waste site, and cleanup is costly and dangerous. Dismantling meth labs calls for specially trained personnel, hazardous waste equipment, and hazardous waste disposal. According to a 2003 estimate by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), for every pound of methamphetamine produced in a clandestine lab, about five pounds of toxic waste is left behind. And in some cases law enforcement personnel deal with as much as 10 pounds of leftover chemicals and byproduct sludge. At some lab sites, toxic chemicals can enter the water table, causing further damage and clean up costs. State and local authorities cover initial costs for removal of leftover chemicals and lab equipment, with the landowner bearing any additional costs. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), cleanup costs average between $2,000 to $4,000 dollars per site. Consequently, agencies at all levels of government have been forced to spend millions of dollars to remediate the environmental and physical damage left behind by defunct clandestine labs, diverting limited resources away from other programs and operations.

Children of Meth Cooks
The toll taken by methamphetamine labs is not only environmental; it is also personal. DEA statistics indicate that thousands of children suffer neglect every year while living with parents who are meth cooks. More than 20 percent of the meth labs seized last year had children present or in the immediate vicinity. In 2003 EPIC reported that more than 3,000 children were found on site during law enforcement actions related to clandestine methamphetamine laboratories nationwide. These children, exposed to harmful chemicals and suffering from physical and emotional neglect, were, in many cases, placed into the already overwhelmed social services systems. When found in houses containing labs, discoveries include children eating, sleeping, and playing with the toxic chemicals.

National Response
October 2004 saw the release of the first-ever National Synthetic Drugs Action Plan. The Action Plan resulted from collaboration between the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Justice. The document, available at (, serves as a roadmap for addressing the unique challenges of synthetic and pharmaceutical drugs by enumerating several legislative and enforcement strategies. Much like the balanced approach of the president's National Drug Control Strategy, the Action Plan focuses on four core areas:

  • Preventing the abuse of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs

  • Treating those addicted to synthetic drugs

  • Regulating chemicals and precursors

  • Imposing strict penalties on those who illegally divert or traffic the drugs or precursor chemicals
  • For the past three years, the federal budget annually devoted $79.2 million to methamphetamine cleanup, interdiction, and enforcement. This shows an increase in funding for methamphetamine-related activities of 528 percent over 2001 funding levels.

    On April 15, 2003, the arrests of more than 65 individuals from throughout the United States and Canada were made due to the success of Operation Northern Star, an investigation conducted jointly by DEA and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that targeted the methamphetamine trafficking process at all stages. The fourth of its kind, this 18-month investigation addressed the supply of pseudoephedrine from Canadian sources. Prior investigations and increasing regulatory oversight disrupted the U.S. supply chain and sent traffickers and producers seeking bulk quantities of pseudoephedrine north to Canada. The arrests included six executives from three Canadian chemicals companies as well as precursor suppliers, producers, transporters, distributors, and money launderers. This cross-border investigation's success was due to the cooperation between the DEA and the RCMP as well as other federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

    Prevention efforts are usually based on long-term models, but methamphetamine's quick rise in use and trafficking changed demand patterns, leading to adjustments in data gathering and application in order to address the rapid threat. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), two agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services, lead the specific prevention efforts that apply to pharmaceutical and synthetic drugs.

    Some prevention-related recommendations include developing an early warning and response system to detect the emergence of new drugs and trends, as well as researching and developing targeted prevention programs that are tailored to meet the unique needs of high-risk groups or communities.

    In October 2003 the federal government implemented a national Drug Endangered Children program, which helps poisoned, burned, or otherwise hurt children found in methamphetamine labs. This program coordinates the efforts of law enforcement, medical services, and child welfare workers to ensure that children found in these environments receive appropriate attention and care. Training programs in safety and cross-training of personnel, appropriate reporting, cross-reporting, and information sharing, as well as medical care procedures, are essential to ensure the safety and welfare of the exposed child and responding personnel.

    A highly addictive drug, methamphetamine creates a unique treatment need. Violent mood swings, extreme paranoia, and a longer-than-normal detoxification period are some of the challenges facing meth-focused recovery programs. Nevertheless, treatment for methamphetamine addiction can succeed.

    In 2003 a treatment initiative called Access to Recovery began. This voucher-based system makes treatment accessible to addicts who might otherwise not get the help they need. Access to Recovery ensures that individuals have genuine, free, and independent choice of eligible providers. Tennessee's Access to Recovery program, now in development, will specifically target individuals addicted to methamphetamine. Program vouchers will provide support services in the rural areas of the state, especially the Appalachian region, where the methamphetamine problem is making its greatest impact.

    Treatment recommendations in the Action Plan include increasing research on the physical and psychological effects of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs, as well as on the continued development of effective treatment programs. Further recommendations call for increasing treatment capacity for synthetic drug addiction in community and correctional facilities. Particular emphasis will be placed on including follow-up services that address the protracted recovery period associated with methamphetamine dependency.

    Regulating Chemicals and Drugs
    Effective chemical control increases the difficulty, risk, and cost of methamphetamine production. This challenge extends beyond U.S. borders. Many precursor chemicals are regulated in accordance with United Nations guidelines and other international agreements to ensure that exporting countries are exporting chemicals pursuant to established protocols. During the next several months, the administration will review existing international agreements to identify areas for enhancing international cooperation to effectively monitor chemical shipments and imports.

    In the United States, regulatory controls on pseudoephedrine sales exist in many states. Oklahoma and Oregon possess some of the most restrictive laws in the nation in response to the high numbers of methamphetamine labs found and dismantled in those states. Although preliminary data suggest that more-restrictive state laws produce results, each state must decide for itself what controls will bring about the most effective results in its jurisdiction. As of this writing, 23 states introduced legislation related to further restricting precursor chemical or over-the-counter sales of otherwise-legal substances that can be used to make methamphetamine.

    At the federal level, the U.S. Congress is considering alternatives for reducing methamphetamine production and use. Any national standard must be based on proven results and must be appropriate for the entire country. The Action Plan endorses reducing from nine grams the per-purchase limit of products containing pseudoephedrine and eliminating the so-called blister pack exemption and distinctions based on the form of product packaging.

    The blister pack exemption allows sales of pseudoephedrine products packaged in blister packs for personal use and in amounts of less than nine grams, exempt from registration requirements and record keeping for DEA reporting. Meth producers and traffickers have attempted to sidestep this exemption by buying small amounts at various stores in one community and devised ways to easily open large quantities of blister packs. Purchases of the packages continue for precursor chemical use in production or in trafficking the pills to producers.

    The Action Plan recommends enabling import controls on bulk ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, similar to postimportation processing of schedule 1 and 2 controlled substances, as well as supporting stronger state controls on precursor chemicals than those currently in place at the federal level, particularly in states with high levels of clandestine lab activity and chemical diversion. The Action Plan also recommends strengthening the international chemical control system to make existing multilateral chemical controls more universal and well supported by international institutions. Targeting psedoephedrine and iodine smuggling to and from Mexico as well as focusing on Canadian synthetics and chemical smugglers are part of the Action Plan's recommendations for law enforcement.

    Law Enforcement
    The National Methamphetamine Chemicals Initiative (NMCI) combines the power of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers, chemists, intelligence analysts, and criminal and civil prosecutors to discuss methamphetamine legal and regulatory issues as well as develops strategies that target suppliers of precursor chemicals. Clandestine lab and site cleanup training videos; coordination of federal, state, and local agencies to inform hazardous waste contractors about the potential diversion of hazardous chemicals; and training on chemical investigation and prosecution for hundreds of federal criminal and civil prosecutors, intelligence analysts, and government officials from all levels are a few of the activities of NMCI that contribute to making the methamphetamine problem smaller.

    The Road Ahead
    A destructive drug, methamphetamine not only harms the user, but also the environment and children exposed to the drug. Toxic fumes emanating from a lab hidden in a house affect entire neighborhoods. Lives are destroyed

    There remains much to be done, but much has already been accomplished. States and the federal government are considering, and in some cases enacting, legislation to reduce the supply of precursor chemicals used in meth production. Meth-specific treatment programs now exist, and funding is available for individuals in need of treatment. Drug Endangered Children programs and safety protocols have been implemented at the local levels where officers come face-to-face with meth's innocent victims.

    Reducing all drug use-including methamphetamine use-requires a balanced, consistent, and coordinated focus among law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement personnel are the agents of change in this cycle of drug trafficking and use. As leaders in the community, law enforcement has the ability to change attitudes and initiate programs that improve the quality of life in cities and towns. v

    To learn how the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy can help local and state police agencies, visit (, or call Scott M. Burns, ONDCP deputy director for state and local affairs, at 202-395-4694. ■



    From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, April 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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