DRCNet Response to the
Drug Enforcement Administration
Methamphetamine Situation in the United States

Methamphetamine: A Growing Domestic Threat


Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse in the United States have been on the rise over the past few years and, as a result, this drug is having a devastating impact in many communities across the nation. Although more common in western areas of the country, this impact increasingly is being felt in areas not previously familiar with the harmful effects of this powerful stimulant. Methamphetamine trafficking is increasing in the southwest, midwest, and southeast regions of the United States. In the Northeast, for example, in areas like New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, methamphetamine use in the past has been confined to a small group of older users typically associated with motorcycle gangs. In the past year, however, methamphetamine has become a drug of choice at "raves" (all-night dance gatherings) and one of a number of drugs used by college-aged students. Following are snapshots of methamphetamine-related events.

The Methamphetamine Problem

Traditionally, the suppliers of methamphetamine throughout the United States have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. Although these groups continue to produce and distribute methamphetamine, organized crime polydrug trafficking groups operating from Mexico currently dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States. Over the past few years, these groups have revolutionized the production of this drug by operating large-scale laboratories both in Mexico and the United States capable of producing unprecedented quantities of high-purity methamphetamine and have saturated the western U.S. market with this product.

Relatively small quantities of methamphetamine are produced by licit drug manufacturers in the United States. There is little diversion of these legitimate products because they are subject to strict controls. Clandestine production accounts for almost all of the methamphetamine trafficked and abused in the United States.

Domestic methamphetamine production, trafficking, and abuse are concentrated primarily in the western and southwestern regions of the United States. The cities in these regions encountering the most significant problems with abuse include Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and, to a lesser degree, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle. Much of the clandestine laboratory activity remains centered in California where the methamphetamine problem is most acute. Methamphetamine also is available consistently in wholesale quantities in some cities in the Midwest and the South.

Within certain areas of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and portions of the Pacific Northwest, methamphetamine traditionally has been the drug of choice among a portion of the illicit drug user population. The involvement of criminal organizations based in Mexico in methamphetamine trafficking clearly has expanded the market in those areas and beyond. Moreover, according to reporting from DEA Honolulu and the local Honolulu Police Department, traffickers from Mexico have become the primary source for methamphetamine in Hawaii, reportedly replacing traditional suppliers from Asia.

Areas of the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and some portions of the South, particularly Georgia and the surrounding States, and Southeast have experienced a dramatic increase in the availability of methamphetamine supplied by organized crime groups operating from Mexico. For example, organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico transporting large quantities of the drug to the Midwest led to the expansion of the existing methamphetamine market. Within the Midwest, Kansas and Missouri are experiencing an increase in the number of methamphetamine laboratories operating in those States, which would indicate that methamphetamine production is expanding eastward. However, these laboratories are small-scale operations, particularly when compared to the large-scale laboratories operating in California. The rise in laboratory seizures in these states does not reflect a concerted effort by major traffickers to shift production from sites in California. Rather, it reflects the increasing effort by local entrepreneurs, who operate on the periphery of the methamphetamine market, to exploit the expanding demand for the drug. Laboratories in California, controlled by organized crime drug trafficking groups operating from Mexico , remain the predominant sources of supply for the West, Midwest and much of the United States.

Other evidence also suggests that availability is increasing domestically. The increasing frequency of large, high-purity methamphetamine seizures over the past few years provides strong evidence of significantly increased availability of the drug. Although methamphetamine seizures have increased noticeably in midwestern and southeastern States, most still occur in western States, primarily California. (See Appendix A for a discussion of methamphetamine removals.)


Currently, methamphetamine prices nationwide range from $6,500 to $20,000 per pound, $500 to $2,700 per ounce, and $50 to $150 per gram. The price of methamphetamine is heavily influenced by the supply of ephedrine/pseudoephedrine-key methamphetamine precursors. For example, through mid-1995, when ephedrine/pseudoephedrine supplies were readily available, a pound of methamphetamine sold for as low as $3,000 in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Lately, however, pound prices have increased, most likely as a result of recent domestic and international efforts to curtail ephedrine/pseudoephedrine supplies. Currently, a pound of methamphetamine sells for $6,500 to $10,000 in both cities.


In 1995, the purity of methamphetamine purchases reported by DEA nationwide at both the gram and ounce levels was 54 percent, substantially below the peaks reported in 1994. As with the recent increase in price, the decrease in purity could be due in part to law enforcement efforts to reduce traffickers' access to ephedrine/pseudoephedrine. Despite this decrease, methamphetamine purity has remained at approximately 50 percent or more over the past 4 years, indicating relatively stable availability of the drug. Representative purity levels for one-pound quantities are not available due to the infrequency of purchases at that level.

Methamphetamine Use

Traditionally, methamphetamine users have suffered the same addiction cycle and withdrawal reactions as those suffered by crack cocaine users. Both drugs, after prolonged use, lead to binging, consuming the drug continuously for up to 3 days without sleep. The user then is driven into a severe depression, followed by worsening paranoia, belligerence, and aggression, a period known as tweaking. Finally, the user collapses from exhaustion, only to awaken days later to begin the cycle again. However, the new ephedrine-based methamphetamine has a usage pattern unlike that of traditional methamphetamine or crack cocaine. Several times more potent than its other forms, today's methamphetamine produces a reaction far more severe than even crack cocaine, with sleepless binges that last up to 15 days and end with intolerable crashes.

The most frequent method of methamphetamine use is injection. Chronic, high-dose methamphetamine abusers, often called "speed freaks," are generally undernourished with a gaunt appearance, poor hygiene, and rotten teeth. These individuals inject methamphetamine every 2 to 3 hours and often as much as 1,000 milligrams each time. Due to the high level of methamphetamine in their systems, "speed freaks" are extremely paranoid.

According to the latest information available from DAWN, the estimated number of nationwide emergency room drug abuse episodes involving methamphetamine has increased steadily since 1992, following significant decreases that had begun in 1990. In fact, the number of methamphetamine related episodes recorded during 1994 was almost double the number of episodes in 1989, the year prior to the decline.

According to DAWN statistics, the areas hardest hit by methamphetamine abuse include San Diego, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle.

The increase in methamphetamine-related hospital emergency room episodes was most pronounced in Phoenix, where they nearly tripled from 1992 to 1994. Likewise, methamphetamine-related deaths reported to DAWN by Phoenix-area medical examiners also indicated a considerable increase in the abuse of this substance; 20 such deaths were reported in 1992, compared to 122 in 1994 more than a six-fold increase.

Methamphetamine-related emergency room episodes in the Los Angeles area rose from 827 in 1992 to 1,227 in 1993, representing an increase of 48 percent. This upward trend continued during 1994 but at a more moderate rate. The increases in emergency room episodes were paralleled by increases in methamphetamine-related deaths reported by Los Angeles-area medical examiners; such deaths nearly tripled from 1992 to 1993, rising from 68 to 198.

San Diego-area emergency room episodes resulting from the abuse of methamphetamine increased significantly, from 516 in 1991 to 931 in 1992 an 80 percent increase. The number of such episodes remained fairly stable during 1993 and 1994. The number of methamphetamine-related deaths reported by San Diego-area medical examiners, however, increased 56 percent from 110 in 1993 to 172 in 1994.

Methamphetamine User Profile

Traditionally, methamphetamine use has been most pronounced among males between the ages of 19 and 40. As shown in the graphs that follow, DAWN reporting reflects that this population continues to dominate the data. However, reporting from epidemiologists and treatment personnel reveals possible modifications in the methamphetamine user profile. There is reporting that methamphetamine use is increasing somewhat among college students and young professionals involved in the club scene or participating at rave parties, where the drug has emerged among a battery of "party drugs" that often include LSD, marijuana, Ketamine, and alcohol.

As shown in the graph below, the most common route of administration among methamphetamine-related hospital emergency room episodes in major U.S. metropolitan areas is injection, largely due to the number of episodes reported in San Francisco. In fact, due to increased use by injection and the drug's capacity to lower inhibition, methamphetamine has become a major catalyst in the spread of AIDS in San Francisco. However, in other cities that have a significant methamphetamine problem, snorting is the most common route of administration.


Methamphetamine, like cocaine, is a potent central nervous system stimulant. It can be smoked, snorted, injected, or taken orally. It increases the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and rate of breathing; it dilates the pupils; and produces euphoria, increased alertness, a sense of increased energy, and tremors. High doses or chronic use have been associated with increased nervousness, irritability, and paranoia. Withdrawal from high doses produces severe depression. Methamphetamine can be a lethal, dangerous, and unpredictable drug.

Effects: In large doses, irritability, aggressive behavior, anxiety, excitement, auditory hallucinations, and paranoia (delusions and psychosis) are frequent effects. Abusers tend to engage in violent behavior; mood changes are common and the abuser can change from friendly to hostile rapidly. The paranoia produced by methamphetamine use results in suspiciousness, hyperactive behavior, and dramatic mood swings.

Duration: Compared with cocaine, which is rapidly metabolized in the body, methamphetamine is slowly metabolized, with up to 2 days required to eliminate a single dose. Rapidly absorbed when taken orally, the effects of the drug peak within 2 to 3 hours and are measurably effective in the body for up to 8 hours.

Addiction: One of the main arguments in determining whether or not a substance is capable of producing physical addiction (dependence) is the ability to produce a withdrawal syndrome similar to that of narcotics and central nervous system depressants. Once it was discovered that each drug produces its own unique pattern of effects, more drugs were then identified as having addiction potential. Repeated use of high dose methamphetamine produces such a pattern. Several hours after last use, the individual experiences a drastic drop in mood and energy level. Sleep begins and may last for a long period and, upon awakening, severe depression exists that may last for days. While users are in this depressed state, suicide is a major concern. These symptoms occur after use and may be reversed by once again taking methamphetamine, thereby fitting the definition for a withdrawal syndrome.

Crystal methamphetamine - commonly called "ice" - first appeared domestically in Hawaii and, to a lesser extent, on the West Coast in the late 1980's. The availability of ice currently is limited to Hawaii and to some Asian-American communities in Seattle and California. Ice trafficking and availability are very limited throughout the rest of the continental United States.

Ice is high-purity methamphetamine. It is not an analogue of methamphetamine nor a "designer" drug. The name is derived from the drug's appearance, that of clear, large chunky crystals resembling rock candy. Samples of ice have been found to be highly concentrated, with purities as high as 98 to 100 percent.

Ice is smoked in a manner similar to crack cocaine and about 10 to 15 "hits" can be obtained from a single gram of the substance. Users have referred to smoking ice as a "cool" smoke, while the smoking of crack is a "hot" smoke. The euphoric effect lasts longer than that of cocaine.

Methods of Production

The illicitmanufacture of methamphetamine can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but it is produced most commonly by using either of two primary synthesis methods. The fundamental difference between the two methods is in the use of precursor chemicals. The first method requires the use of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as the precursor (known as the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method), while the second method uses phenyl-2-propanone (commonly called P2P).

The ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method is most widely employed and accounted for 89 percent of all methamphetamine laboratory seizures reported to DEA in 1995. This method is common among traffickers from Mexico. The P2P method was used in 6 percent of the methamphetamine laboratories seized by DEA during 1995.

The ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method is preferred over the P2P method for several reasons. First, it is a simpler route of synthesis. Second, ephedrine/pseudoephedrine is less strictly controlled than P2P, and, therefore, is more readily available to clandestine laboratory operators. Third, it produces a more potent form of methamphetamine.1

The use of P2P, an immediate precursor for both amphetamine and methamphetamine, was the preferred route of synthesis prior to the emergence of the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method. As an immediate precursor for the manufacture of both amphetamine and methamphetamine, P2P is controlled under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA). As a result, clandestine laboratory operators occasionally manufacture their own P2P from phenylacetic acid.

Clandestine Laboratories

Clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in the United States usually are operated on an irregular basis rather than on a consistent production schedule. Operators often produce a batch of finished product, disassemble the laboratory, and either store or move it to another location while they acquire additional chemicals. Relocating the laboratory affords some protection against detection by drug law enforcement authorities. Storage facilities often are used to house or safeguard chemicals, glassware, and finished product. It is not uncommon for operators to have multiple laboratory sites.

Cooperative efforts by law enforcement agencies and chemical suppliers have made it more difficult for methamphetamine laboratory operators to obtain the necessary chemicals. In order to circumvent these joint efforts, laboratory operators have sought alternative chemicals, routes of synthesis, and sources of supply to fulfill their needs. Laboratory operators have manufactured their own chemicals, employed "runners" to purchase necessary chemicals under the "threshold amount" (the amount at which record-keeping and reporting of chemical transactions are required), or experimented with alternative, non-regulated chemicals. They also have obtained chemicals from rogue chemical companies, from sources of supply located in States without strict chemical regulations, or from other countries.

Currently, a significant portion of the methamphetamine available in the United States is produced domestically and large-scale production of methamphetamine remains centered in California. In 1995, 241 methamphetamine laboratory seizures have been reported to DEA, most occurring in the western and southwestern United States. This figure is derived solely from reporting by DEA field divisions and laboratories. Seizures made by State and local authorities independent of DEA participation are not included in this figure.2

In addition to domestic manufacture, methamphetamine increasingly is being produced in Mexico and smuggled into the United States. This is confirmed by seizure data from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) and the DEA Mexico City Country Office. According to EPIC, the amount of methamphetamine seized in transit from Mexico to the United States increased dramatically beginning in 1993. In 1993 and 1994, 306 and 682 kilograms, respectively, were seized along the border. During 1995, 653 kilograms were seized. By comparison, only 6.5 kilograms were seized in all of 1992. Likewise, the amount of methamphetamine seized in Mexico has increased in the past 3 years.

Locations: Small-scale methamphetamine laboratories are being operated increasingly in single and multifamily residences in urban and suburban neighborhoods, where they pose a significant threat to public health and safety. Although traditionally located in sparsely populated or isolated rural areas to avoid detection, as laboratory seizures reported to DEA indicate, 52 percent of the clandestine laboratories seized in 1995 were located in urban and suburban sites. Rural locations were reported in 38 percent of the seizures and industrial or commercial sites in 5 percent. (Locality information was not available for 5 percent of the laboratory seizures.)

Operators: Methamphetamine laboratory operators often are well-armed, and their laboratories occasionally are booby-trapped and equipped with scanning devices employed as security precautions. Weaponry, ranging from single firearms to arsenals of high-powered weapons and explosives, are commonly found at laboratory sites. Laboratory operators, or "cooks," frequently display little concern for public safety or the environment. Cooks vary from high school dropouts with no real chemistry education to professionals with graduate degrees in chemistry. Typically, however, these cooks have little formal training. Instead, they follow a handwritten recipe or have learned to produce methamphetamine from underground publications, apprenticeships, or fellow inmates during periods of incarceration.

Chemists: Some laboratory operators act as their own chemists, while others hire chemists to run the laboratories for them. Many manufacturers are independent producers who cook for various organized groups. This is particularly true of larger organizations that may hire or contract chemists to manufacture methamphetamine in return for cash, finished product, or a combination of both. Other cooks manufacture for themselves rather than for a particular organization.

Network: Leasing storage facilities, procuring chemicals, securing the laboratory site, and setting up glassware and equipment may be the responsibility of one person or many different individuals. Several individuals may simply work together to combine their expertise, chemicals, etc., on an ad hoc basis. The number of individuals that comprise an operation, and the function each performs, differs from one organization to the next. Illicit manufacturers often develop and maintain associations with other laboratory operators. In certain areas, they function as a loosely interconnected community or network, sharing, selling, or exchanging chemicals, recipes, glassware, or the finished product.

Laboratories Operated by Traffickers from Mexico

Typically, laboratories operated by traffickers from Mexico are set up in remote areas throughout southern and parts of northern California. Organizations may purchase property or pay for the short-term use of a site to acquire a secure location where they can manufacture. In the Fresno area, for example, laboratories usually are constructed on property rented out by farm laborers who are paid up to $10,000 for use of the property. Cooking most frequently occurs during the weekend when the farms are not in operation. An organization may utilize one location many times. The same location may be used by numerous organizations. Some individuals make money simply by renting out laboratory sites to various organizations. Organizations assist each other in obtaining chemicals, glassware, and the finished product. Chemists may manufacture for numerous organizations. Chemical brokers supply numerous manufacturing organizations with chemicals.

An individual, acting in a supervisory capacity, may be responsible for the overall management of the laboratory, such as ensuring that the necessary chemicals and equipment are present and are set up for the operation to proceed. Generally, chemicals are stored in stash houses and brought to the laboratory site on a limited basis. The amount of chemicals present at the laboratory usually is restricted to that amount required to complete a particular cook. Once the process is complete, the laboratories are dismantled, and the equipment is put into storage.

Numerous 22-liter setups are used frequently in laboratories operated by traffickers from Mexico to produce up to 100 pounds during each manufacturing process. Furthermore, these organizations may operate many laboratories simultaneously. Illegal aliens are encountered most frequently at the laboratory site. In some cases, they are hired as helpers or to maintain the reaction process, while the actual chemist visits periodically to ensure the operation is functioning properly. In others, they are responsible for all facets of the manufacturing process.

Clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in Mexico appear to be run in a manner similar to their counterparts in the United States. For example, temporary laborers typically are hired to perform the production process, laboratories often are located in remote areas (e.g., ranches), and large-capacity laboratory equipment is used.

The increase in production in Mexico is a result of an increased demand in the United States and ongoing enforcement efforts in California. It is likely that increasingly strict chemical controls and enforcement efforts in the United States will result in an additional increase in production of methamphetamine in Mexico, depending upon access to chemicals in that country.

Health Hazards/Hazardous Waste and Materials Encountered at Laboratory Sites

Not only are methamphetamine laboratories used to manufacture illegal, often deadly drugs, but the clandestine nature of the manufacturing process and the presence of ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic chemicals at the sites, have resulted in explosions, fires, toxic fumes, and irreparable damage to human health and to the environment. Every year, fires or explosions occur at a number of clandestine laboratory sites, which lead to their discovery.

Hazardous chemical wastes, the by-products of the clandestine drug manufacturing process, are disposed of by unsafe and illegal methods - operators dump them on the ground or in nearby streams and lakes, pour them into local sewage systems or septic tanks, or bury them. Law enforcement personnel engaged in clandestine drug laboratory seizure and analysis require specialized training in the investigation of such facilities, including training in appropriate health and safety procedures and in the use of personal protective equipment. Cleaning up a seized clandestine drug laboratory site is a complex, dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming undertaking. The amount of waste material from a clandestine laboratory may vary from a few pounds to several tons depending on the size of the laboratory and its manufacturing capabilities.

When a methamphetamine laboratory is seized, hazardous waste/materials, such as chemicals and contaminated glassware and equipment, must be disposed of properly. These materials weigh from a few pounds to several tons and include solvents, reagents, precursors, by-products, and the drug products themselves. Many of these materials are reactive, explosive, flammable, corrosive, and/or toxic. The danger is compounded by the fact that many Federal, State, and local law enforcement officers lack adequate training in clandestine laboratory safety procedures and regulations, hazards, and other related health and safety issues. The table below provides examples of chemicals associated with methamphetamine laboratories and lists some of their hazardous properties.

Although the quantities of hazardous materials found at a typical methamphetamine laboratory are relatively small when compared to waste generated from a major industry, the substances to which law enforcement personnel and others may be exposed present very real public health concerns. Methamphetamine laboratories present both acute and chronic health risks to individuals involved in the seizure and cleanup of the facility, to those who live and work nearby, and to the violator operating the facility.

California law enforcers in recent years have discovered dozens of industrial-sized laboratories, capable of producing five times the amount of methamphetamine than that of conventional laboratories. While investigating these "superlabs," found mostly on remote stretches of farm lands, law officers learned that most of them are erected by Mexican organizations and are operated much like franchises. After erecting a laboratory, these organizations rent the facility to other criminal groups for methamphetamine production, charging them up to $20,000 per use, and increasingly taking product as payment. California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE) officials estimate some of these laboratories generate up to $2 million a week.

In 1994, the BNE seized a total of 419 laboratories, 52 of which were industrial-sized. The methamphetamine seized from these 52 exceeded the amount seized from the other 367 combined.

BNE seizures of methamphetamine and clandestine laboratories have increased dramatically. Methamphetamine seizures surged from 1,400 pounds in 1991 to over 18,000 pounds in 1995. Also, last year, BNE's laboratory seizures reached 465 - one every 19 hours.

Site Contamination and the Environmental Impact

The chemical reactions that occur during the manufacture of illegal drugs may produce toxic vapors that permeate into the plaster and wood of buildings or may be vented outside. The problems are further complicated when the chemicals are stored at off-site locations such as rental lockers. The lack of proper ventilation and temperature controls at these off-site locations adds to the potential for fire, explosion, and exposure to humans.

Methamphetamine laboratories may contaminate water sources and/or soil. In some cases, contamination may spread off-site. Careless or intentional dumping by the laboratory operator is one source of contamination. Spilling chemicals on the floor or dumping waste into bathtubs, sinks, toilets, or on the grounds surrounding the laboratories, and along roads and creeks are common practices. Surface and groundwater drinking supplies could be contaminated, potentially affecting large numbers of people. Perhaps the greatest risk of long-term exposure is assumed by unsuspecting inhabitants of buildings formerly used by clandestine drug laboratory operators where residual contamination may exist inside and outside the structure.


1) There are two stereoisomers of methamphetamine, dextro or d and levo or l. The dextro or d-isomer is the more potent, pharmacologically active stimulant of the two. Synthesis of methamphetamine by one of the P2P methods yields a racemic mixture (dl-methamphetamine, a 50-50 mixture of the d- and l-isomers), while the reduction of ephedrine yields d-methamphetamine. Because the d-isomer accounts for most of the stimulant effects associated with methamphetamine, the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction route of synthesis produces substantially more of the active isomer than does the P2P method.
2) As reported to DEA Headquarters by teletype, DEA Reports of Investigation, and Clandestine Laboratory Report, pursuant to DEA Agents Manual reporting requirements. DEA defines a clandestine laboratory as "an illicit operation consisting of a sufficient combination of apparatus and chemicals that either has been or could be used in the manufacture or synthesis of controlled substances." This definition does not include the seizure of chemicals, glassware, or other equipment by themselves as constituting a laboratory.


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