This is a chapter from Ryan Grim’s book on drugs, This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America." Get a beer, glass of wine, or whatever, and enjoy! – Ilene
…Yet even politicians inclined to support a treatment-oriented approach to diminishing the American appetite for illegal drugs have opted to emphasize enforcement in order to position themselves as "tough" on crime.
For just this reason, President Clinton replaced his first, reform-minded drug czar, Lee Brown, with retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who squandered billions on a scandal-ridden media campaign (planting secret anti-drug messages in prime-time TV dramas) and combating the medical marijuana movement, which is supported by a majority of Americans. Worse yet, overseas enforcement campaigns lead to horrific blowback. Grim points out that aggressive attacks on growers and suppliers cause centralization of the drug trade (only big organizations can afford the losses) and this in turn leads to corruption, as cartel leaders parlay their fortunes into political influence. Not only are we pissing away our own resources on ineffectual enforcement efforts, we have "brought the Mexican government to the brink of collapse, making the prospect of a failed state on America’s southern border a very real possibility."
For Grim, most of these mistakes have roots in an elementary error, the inability to accept that "altering one’s consciousness is a fundamental human desire." The craving to be more relaxed or more alert, more outgoing or more reflective, happier or deeper or even just sillier and less bored — in one form other another, this drive has always been and always will be with us, though many of us refuse to admit it. As a result, our political response to drug problems tends to be blinkered. "In reality, there’s no such thing as drug policy," Grim writes. "As currently understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a phenomenon that can’t be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug policy. Healthcare policy is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always backfires, because it doesn’t take into account the powerful economic, social and cultural forces that also determine how and why Americans get high."
By Ryan Grim
During the first year of his administration, President Bill Clinton made free trade a top priority, pushing for the passage of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. It wasn’t an easy task. Having helped Democrats take the White House for the first time in twelve years, organized labor was in no mood to see manufacturing jobs shipped to Mexico. The debate was difficult enough without having to talk about the sprawling Mexican drug trade and its attendant corruption and how the agreement would end up benefiting the cartels. So Clinton ordered his people not to mention it.
“We were prohibited from discussing the effects of NAFTA as it related to narcotics trafficking, yes,” Phil Jordan, who had been one of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s leading authorities on Mexican drug organizations, told ABC News reporter Brian Ross four years after the deal had gone through. “For the godfathers of the drug trade in Columbia and Mexico, this was a deal made in narco heaven.”
The agreement squeaked through Congress in late 1993 and went into effect January 1, 1994, the same day that the Zapatistas rose up in southeast Mexico. With its passage, more than two million trucks began flowing northward across the border annually. Only a small fraction of them were inspected for cocaine, heroin, or meth.
In a 1999 report, the White House estimated that commercial vehicles brought roughly 100 tons of cocaine into the country across the Mexican border in 1993. With NAFTA in effect, 1994 saw the biggest jump in commercial-vehicle smuggling on record— an increase of 25 percent, a massive annual upsurge for any type of drug-related statistic. The number of meth-related emergency-room visits in the United States doubled between 1991 and 1994. In San Diego, America’s meth capital, meth seizures climbed from 1,409 pounds in 1991 to 13,366 in 1994.
As far as the Clinton administration was concerned, the cost of increased drug smuggling was far less than the benefit of increased trade. In this case, the White House knew very well that economic policy couldn’t be separated from drug policy; it simply chose to pretend otherwise. It’s a tactic in which the United States frequently engages. The ongoing foreign-policy goal of taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance, has been pursued in spite of its potential effect on the heroin trade. That Afghan heroin exports have increased in the wake of regime change is a typical result of such a compartmentalized approach. But drug policy per se doesn’t exist. Because altering one’s consciousness is a fundamental human desire, any public policy is also drug policy.
When broad economic policies collide with narrowly focused drug policies, unintended consequences multiply. The opening of the border by NAFTA came at an opportune time for Mexican drug runners, who had recently expanded their control of the cocaine trade and made major investments in large-scale meth production. Both were unintended consequences of U.S. policies in the seventies and eighties aimed at crushing meth and cocaine with a militarized, enforcement-heavy approach. The return of meth across the Mexican border was one more sign that the get-tough policies of the eighties had backfired.
Meth production had been driven underground and pushed into Mexico in the late-sixties and seventies as a result of federal legislation. It fell into the waiting arms of a drug-smuggling establishment that itself had also been created by U.S. drug policy. The 1914 U.S. law that banned opium had created a situation in which the drug was illegal on one side of the border and legal on the other, where it had been grown since the 1800s. The Mexican government was in the midst of a revolution and unable to stop northward smuggling. Sociologist Luís Astorga, in his study “Drug Trafficking in Mexico: A First General Assessment,” cites Los Angeles customs officials claiming that Baja California’s then-governor, Esteban Cantú, a Mexican army colonel, was suspected of playing a major role in the drug trade by reselling product seized from other traffickers.
Mexican smugglers got another boost when the United States banned alcohol with passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. It took them decades, though, to get into the cocaine business. In the seventies, South American cocaine producers were running almost all of the cocaine imported into the United States through the Caribbean, into Miami, and then out to the rest of the nation. In the eighties, the feds brought the hammer down on the mound of coke that was Miami and the Caribbean smugglers. While the government focused on the powder that then began to waft across the country, Mexican meth smugglers seized a perfect opportunity.
The opening salvo of the U.S. war on coke might well have been a 1981 Time magazine cover story on Miami’s burgeoning drug trade, which put an intolerable situation before the eyes of the whole American public. The report, titled “Trouble in Paradise,” led directly to federal intervention, with Vice President George H. W. Bush repeatedly traveling to Miami to oversee the response personally.
Making life difficult for those involved in the multibillion-dollar drug trade, however, was no simple affair. With tighter enforcement in Florida and the Caribbean, producers increasingly moved their product by tuna boat or airplane to Mexico or another nearby nation and then overland across the U.S. border. Mexico had the infrastructure ready: By the late seventies, it was the world’s largest heroin exporter, with thousands of acres of poppy fields. The late sixties and seventies had also seen a dramatic increase in demand for Mexican marijuana; by the mid-seventies, it was among the world’s foremost pot exporters.
The extensive South and Central American smuggling network was built at a time when the United States’ primary foreign-policy goals were to oppose communism and to support enemies of communism—regardless of whether they were also drug traffickers. When relations with the Soviet Union began to thaw, in the mid-eighties, the United States was left with a superpower-sized military that had no obvious enemy. Drugs would have to do.
“Two words sum up my entire approach,” President George H. W. Bush’s drug czar, William Bennett, announced in 1989: “‘consequences’ and ‘confrontation.’” He and Bush doubled annual drug-war spending to $12 billion and pressed fighter planes, submarines, and other military hardware into service for the cause. In 1989, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney secured $450 million to go after Caribbean smugglers; billions more were spent in the source countries of South America.
In the early nineties, a White House report notes, more than 250 tons of coke were smuggled into the United States through Florida in a year, while only about 100 tons flowed across the southwestern border. By the end of the decade, just under 200 tons each came across both boundaries. In subsequent years, the amount coming through the Caribbean steadily fell, and by 2004, the Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement determined that the route accounted for less than 10 percent of all coke smuggling into the United States.
Spreading the market out didn’t have a noticeable effect on supply north of the border. But it had an important impact south of it: it solidified the strength of Mexican drug-running organizations, which quickly realized that they could make a nice extra profit by packing another drug with their shipments of cocaine. U.S. restrictions on pharmaceutical companies, which had lowered domestic meth production, had also created a thriving Mexican meth industry. The Mexican cocaine cartels were flush with capital, having taken over major portions of the business from the Colombians—thanks, in large measure, to successful U.S. efforts to decapitate Colombian drug organizations. These two circumstances led directly to the industrialization of the meth trade.
The Mexican traffickers renegotiated their deals with the Colombians, taking an ownership stake rather than a flat fee for transport, and then reinvested some of this capital in building meth factories. Their product was then shipped northward in unprecedented volumes.
The return of meth—or, more precisely, the evolution of meth—was a throw-your-hands-up moment for drug warriors. Federal surveys show a long and slow decline in the use of amphetamines in the United States from 1981 to the early nineties. But between 1994 and 1995, meth use jumped in the United States. Among nineteen- to twenty-eight-year-olds in the Michigan survey, annual use ticked up by a third. (It remained lower, however, than the American media would have you believe: Even after the jump in meth use, only 1.2 percent of the survey’s total respondents admitted to using it.)
The shift of meth from localized production in California to big-time assembly lines in Mexico didn’t go unnoticed by enforcement agents in the United States. But the eventual crackdown brought another unforeseen consequence: as California tightened its border in response to both drug smuggling and illegal immigration in the nineties, the drug runners gradually moved east. “The eastward expansion of the drug took a particular toll on central states such as Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska,” noted the 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment. The Midwestern methedemic, as it came to be dubbed, was born.
The war on drugs is often characterized as the product of a reactionary, possibly racist, series of administrations. But it’s important to remember that in the eighties, the feds were responding to intense political and cultural pressure. American conservatives have a long history of the defense of individual liberty, and they’ve generally been opposed to both prohibition and the expansion of the federal government needed to regulate and outlaw drugs. However, the modern religious right, whose long-term goal is to shape the government into an institution that promotes Christian virtue, has demonstrated a keen willingness to sacrifice personal freedom for moral correctness. Its political rise began following 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. By the eighties, it had become a powerful player in the coalition that gave rise to the third wave of the American temperance movement.
The movement’s aims were threefold: to reduce teen drug use, to raise the drinking age, and to stop drunk driving. Newly formed organizations and educational programs such as National Families in Action (founded in 1977), PRIDE (Parent Resources and Information on Drug Education, 1978), D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education, 1983), the Just Say No Club (1985), and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (1986) worked toward the first goal. MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, perhaps the most visible and influential member of the movement, worked toward the second and third.
Just as a century before, it was women who led the charge against immoderation. Candy Lightner, a resident of suburban Fair Oaks, California, whose daughter Cari was run over by a drunk driver in 1980, founded the twentieth-century equivalent of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: a media-savvy organization that was quickly wielding substantial influence over lawmakers. MADD pressure on states and the federal government led to some notable successes. Penalties for drinking and driving were increased, blood-alcohol levels defining intoxication were lowered, and the national drinking age was boosted from eighteen to twenty-one. Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine that drunk driving once went on with little in the way of recrimination. Just a few decades ago, cops were as likely to help you home as they are today to lock you up, sometimes for serious stretches of time.
Like those who led the American temperance movement in earlier eras, shifting its goal from mere moderation to out-and-out prohibition, MADD and its allies quickly broadened their aims. By 1985, many activists wanted to make a criminal of anyone who drove after drinking anything at all. Lightner herself began to worry that what she had created had “become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned. I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.” Typically, American idealism could brook no compromise.
In true eighties fashion, the fight went Madison Avenue: the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), a campaign launched by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, produced one of the decade’s indelible images with its 1987 public service announcement depicting a frying egg. And in true American fashion, many big-time drug, alcohol, and tobacco producers allied themselves with the movement. The PDFA’s major—and, for a time, private—donors included Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, and R. J. Reynolds. After their involvement was exposed, in 1997, the Partnership dropped the booze and smokes sponsors, but it retained plenty of pharmaceutical funders: the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Purdue Pharma, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Procter & Gamble Fund, the Bayer Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline, Kimberly-Clark, Pfizer Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Hoffmann–La Roche, Merck & Co., King Pharmaceuticals, Reckit Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, Walgreens.
For Big Pharma and other substance pushers, allying yourself with the ostensible enemy makes good political sense: it’s better to be on the side that seems to be winning, and you might even earn a legislative loophole or two for your willingness to help out.
Throughout the eighties, with Senator Joe Biden taking a vocal lead, Democrats in Congress and state governments around the country increased prison sentences for drug offenses, coming down particularly hard on crack. In 1986, Congress instituted mandatory-minimum sentences for powder and cocaine. To trigger the powder minimum, a dealer needed to possess 500 grams. For crack, just 5 grams. Two years later, the law was extended to anybody who was associated with the dealer—girlfriends, roommates, what have you.
In 1991, Michigander Allen Harmelin argued that his life sentence for possessing roughly a pound and a half of cocaine is cruel and unusual. The Supreme Court ruled that it is neither. California enacted its three-strikes law in 1994—three felonies equals a minimum of twenty-five years—and the feds one-up the state, declaring a third felony to result in life without parole. Twenty-three more states enacted three-strikes laws by 1995.
In 1984, just over 30,000 people were in prison for drug crimes; by 1991, the number had soared to more than 150,000. The Department of Justice found in a study of the prison population that the average length of a federal stay drastically increased between 1986 and 1997. If you walked into prison in 1986, your average stay would have been twenty-one months. In 1997, it was forty-seven months. For weapons offenders, the rise was from twenty-three to seventy-five months, and for drug offenders, it was from thirty to sixty-six months. Not all criminals could expect such increased time behind bars, however: a bank robber could expect seventy-four months in 1986 and only eighty-three months a decade later.
Three-strikes laws and lengthening prison sentences explain what appears to be a contradiction: U.S. crime rates are falling while U.S. incarceration rates are rising. It stands to reason that if fewer people are committing crimes, then fewer people would be locked up. But the combination of locking up fewer people every year and putting them away for much longer causes the prison population to mushroom.
The result is that more than one out of every one hundred Americans is currently in prison. If you’re a black male between twenty and thirty-four, there’s a better than one in nine chance that you’re imprisoned. To keep all of these people behind bars, states spent a combined $44 billion in 2007.
For a hot minute in the early nineties, however, it looked as if the lock-’em-up-forever approach might be shelved. President Bill Clinton selected as his drug czar Lee Brown, who had a background in law enforcement, sociology, and criminology and told his staff to rethink some basic assumptions. The first one was the militarized approach being used in Latin America, aimed at increasing the cost of drugs.
Brown’s people began passing around a study by a private think tank, the RAND Corporation, that came to some hopeful conclusions: An overwhelming proportion of drug use is done by a small but dedicated group of users. Therefore, getting that small group to reduce its use—even to a small degree—can reap big dividends. RAND estimated that the United States, for instance, could decrease cocaine use by 1 percent either by spending $34 million on drug-treatment programs or by spending $783 million going after drugs at the source. Fiscally, the choice seems obvious.
Rolling Stone reporter Ben Wallace-Wells, who wrote an in-depth feature in 2007 called “How America Lost the Drug War,” has characterized Brown’s time as drug czar as a window of opportunity that never fully opened. “When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers,” Brown told Wallace-Wells. “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I stepped back and asked myself, ‘What impact is all of this having on the drug problem? There has to be a better way.’”
Brown’s 1994 drug-control budget sought to cut spending on Latin American military efforts, to emphasize treatment over incarceration for small-time offenders, and to dedicate $355 million toward treating the core group of addicts. A Democratic Congress emphatically rejected it, sending Clinton a budget that instead prioritized the same old militarized approach. The next year, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries ran the show. Despite Gingrich’s public support of medical marijuana in the early eighties, he and his colleagues had little appetite for anything but the hard line. More than 80 percent of their drug budget went toward enforcement and interdiction.
Even if the GOP had been open to drug-policy reform, the Clinton administration was by then no longer interested. Famous for the strategy of triangulation—undercutting your opponent by agreeing with him on a crucial issue—Clinton increased his emphasis on crime fighting following the 1994 Republican revolution. During his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton made it official: Brown was out and the war would be rejoined in earnest, under the leadership of retired U.S. Army general Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey was enamored of the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug, and that attacking it was the best way to beat drugs back.
Consequently, meth was off the federal radar. But the real-world consequences of meth addiction in the heartland would soon enough create a grassroots movement determined to undermine the enforcement-heavy approach that Clinton had embraced.
Gene Haislip, a revered DEA figure, is credited with crushing Quaaludes in the early eighties by persuading every company that made the necessary precursors to halt production. He tried to do the same thing with meth in 1986, but his effort was stymied by the pharmaceutical lobby. He’d hoped to strictly regulate all ephedrine-related precursors, but after two years of negotiations, he’d succeeded only in regulating the sales of bulk powders.
Mexican cartels, however, had no problem buying bulk product from nations such as China and India. And American producers could still get unlimited quantities of legally marketed pills, which were exempted from the Haislip agreement and could easily be crushed into a precursor-laced powder.
In 1990, the federally funded Monitoring the Future report first began asking about “crystal methamphetamine” or “ice.” Use slowly rose over the decade, ticking dramatically upward after NAFTA was implemented. Arrests and convictions rose, too, but the prison industry couldn’t keep up, creating a strong incentive at the local level to find alternatives to incarceration.
When meth is described in media accounts, it’s sometimes spoken of as creating a nearly incurable addiction. “You have a better chance to do well after many types of cancer than you have of recovering from methamphetamine dependence,” psychiatrist Martin Paulus told Time in 2007. But meth users, it turns out, respond to treatment just as well as, if not better than, other addicts. “Claims that methamphetamine users are virtually untreatable with small recovery rates lack foundation in medical research. . . . [S]everal recent studies indicate that methamphetamine users respond in an equivalent manner as individuals admitted for other drug abuse problems,” a group of ninety-two prominent physicians, treatment specialists, and researchers wrote in a 2005 open letter to the media.
State legislators who needed a cost-effective way to deal with drug addiction have been much more willing to take a chance on that “equivalent manner” than anyone in Congress. Indeed, meth addiction has helped build a nationwide system of local drug courts that divert offenders from incarceration to treatment. The trend began in response to cocaine, with the first drug court established in Miami in 1989, but it rose in tandem with meth use and continued upward even after the numbers for speed began to decline. By 2005, there were more than 1,500 drug courts in operation. By 2008, there were nearly 2,500.
In 2000, California voters approved a program to provide drug treatment, rather than prison time, for nonviolent drug-possession offenders. A study of the law found that it saved the state $1.3 billion over its first six years, and that for every tax dollar invested, California saved $7 thanks to reductions in crime and health-care costs. Oregon, also hit hard by meth, factored in savings on prison costs and health and welfare spending and found that treatment returned $5.62 on every dollar spent. Maryland, Texas, and Utah followed by passing their own treatment-over-incarceration laws.
A two-year study, published in the journal Addiction in 2008, found that those parts of the country that turned to enforcement instead of treatment fared poorly. Researchers looked at several counties in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio that had tightened laws around meth in an effort to curb supply. They discovered that when confronted by a shortage of their favored drug, meth users simply switched to snorting coke. Overall, such areas saw a 9 percent increase in cocaine use after their meth laws were enacted.
As the local movement toward treatment gained strength, it finally received some notice in Washington with the 1994 institution of the federal Drug Court Program. But the way the program was structured and funded indicates the movement’s grassroots nature: it created no nationwide effort aimed at establishing a system of drug courts, but rather allowed localities to apply for federal grants for whatever it is they’re doing. In 2007, the entire federal program was cut a check for $10 million—at $200,000 per state, that’s about as paltry a sum as Washington can conjure.
As meth use rose nationwide, Clinton’s law-and-order drug czar had little interest in either the drug or the drug courts. Of more pressing concern to McCaffrey was the November 1996 passage of ballot initiatives in California and Arizona to legalize medical marijuana. In typical drug-warrior style, the Clinton White House became determined to go after Americans’ changing attitudes toward drugs at the source—so much so that it had no qualms about covertly placing antidrug messages into popular prime-time TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and ER.
Just after the elections in California and Arizona, McCaffrey called a meeting that included the head of the DEA and three other DEA staffers, White House advisers, and people from the FBI and the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. The private wing of the war on drugs was represented, too, by eight senior executives from, and the president of, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Drug-reform organizations got word of the meeting and went to the press about it. Reporter Daniel Forbes broke the story for Salon.com.
The consensus at the meeting was that medical marijuana was a spike that could be driven into the heart of drug prohibition, and that the legalization movement knew it. “Need to frame the issue properly—expose this as legalizers using terminally ill as props” was the thinking of James Copple, then-president of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, according to the minutes. Maricopa County district attorney Richard Romley, representing the Arizona delegation, suggested that “[e]ven though California and Arizona are different props, the strategy of proponents is the same. It will expand throughout the nation if we all don’t react.” His remedy: “Need to go state by state. $ to do media.”
Two approaches were settled upon to prevent the medical-marijuana movement from spreading to other states: ramping up a national antipot PR campaign and threatening doctors with the loss of their licenses if they recommended marijuana to patients. The latter strategy was announced in a press conference a month later and led to the lawsuit that eventually uncovered the minutes of the meeting. The doctors won, claiming a First Amendment right to recommend whatever legal remedy they believed would be effective.
The PDFA’s president threw out an idea of how much the PR component of the effort might cost: “$175 million,” he suggested, according to the minutes. “Try to get fedl $.” That’s exactly how much the drug czar later requested for the new media campaign, and Congress helpfully tossed in another $20 million. The effort, which grew within a year into a billion-dollar public–private partnership, became mired in an accounting scandal and then ran afoul of public opinion when its strategy to pay TV networks as well as film producers for propagandist portrayals of drug use was exposed. And it certainly didn’t slow the medical-marijuana movement.
With the federal government fighting this losing battle, meth use was slowly increasing in rural America, mirroring the rise of cocaine in urban areas that had accompanied the federal war on pot a decade earlier. With it came local dealers’ and addicts’ efforts to supplement the already plentiful supply of Mexican speed. The government has figures for meth-lab seizures beginning only in 1999, but some states’ records go back further. Kansas recorded 4 seizures in 1994 and 7 in 1995. The number peaked at 846 in 2001. In 2004, the national number topped 17,000.
A year later, Congress finally succeeded in overcoming pharmaceutical-lobby objections and tightly controlled pseudoephedrine distribution with a law tied to the Patriot Act. It went into effect the first day of 2006. “It was almost like throwing a switch,” Larry Rogers, an Iowa narcotics cop who’s been chasing drugs since the seventies, told me. Statewide, the number of labs seized fell by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2006, and then dropped another 60 percent or so in 2007, down to just 138. I asked Rogers if that reduced the availability of meth. “No,” he said, “even at the peak of our meth-lab problem, most of the meth that we were dealing with—80 to 90 percent of the meth we were dealing with—always has been imported.”
The 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment found as much. Citing DEA and other federal data, the report concluded that “Mexican criminal groups are the predominant wholesale methamphetamine distributors in the country—even in the Northeast and Florida/Caribbean Regions—supplying various midlevel distributors, including other Mexican criminal groups, with powder methamphetamine and, increasingly, ice methamphetamine.”
That doesn’t mean that the pseudoephedrine regulations were completely useless, however. “The labs just presented a unique risk for us in terms of being first responders,” Rogers said. “They presented environmental risks in terms of exposure, not only for the responders but for the people living at the location—children, spouses, the people actually involved. Fires, explosion—these were the ancillary problems associated with meth labs. We’re glad to see them go, because now we don’t have to deal with that risk. But . . . the majority of meth has always been imported.”
Seizures fell by 50 percent nationally, too, down to fewer than 6,000 in 2005. The government often bandied the large seizure numbers about, in order to create the impression of a serious problem, but the labs that were typically busted weren’t massive enterprises. “A lab can be something as small as somebody trying to cook something up in a milk jug,” DEA spokesperson Steve Robertson told me.
That’s what they mostly found in Iowa. “Most of the labs we dealt with here were small labs, capable of generating an ounce or less per cook,” said Rogers. “Not the superlabs you hear so much about in Mexico and the Southwest United States. They produce meth by the pounds. We haven’t ever dealt with labs on that level.” In fact, few American police forces have ever had to deal with superlabs. Only around 250 were busted in 2001, according to federal data. In 2003, Canada restricted bulk pseudoephedrine exports, and the next year the number fell to 55.
As the Iowa cops easily understood, wiping out meth labs in the United States did almost nothing to reduce meth supply. It only strengthened the hand of the Mexicans. Ever since the U.S. crackdown in Colombia, which led to the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the arrest or killing or many other narco-leaders, the Mexicans had gradually been taking control of drug trade. During the same decade, one-party rule in Mexico was coming to an end, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) began to lose its decades-long grip on power. By 1997, it had lost the legislature, and in 2000, for the first time in more than 70 years, it lost the presidency. Democracy was the open door through which drug traffickers walked to take control of the Mexican state.
They were inadvertently aided by the United States’ launching of its international drug war. From 1969’s unilateral Operation Intercept—an attempt to choke off the importation of marijuana and other drugs at the U.S.–Mexico border, widely protested in Latin America—to such subsequent collaborative efforts as Operation Cooperation and Operation Condor, American anti-drug measures in Mexico have had the effect of simply spreading out the drug trade. High-volume smugglers such as Ramón Arellano Félix, Joaquín Guzmán, and Amado Carrillo, who had all been regional traffickers in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, scattered throughout the country and went to war with each other, creating the cartel structure that exists today. “That was when the drug trade really began to expand,” reporter Javier Valdez Cardenas told New Yorker writer Alma Guillermoprieto in 2008. “Because the few traffickers who remained here were killed, but all the rest of them emigrated. Now they’re all over the country.”
Just as the cartels were rising in power, Mexico was democratizing. And running for democratic office—in a contested race, that is—costs serious money. The all-pervasive, all-powerful PRI hadn’t needed to raise money to win elections. But today in Mexico, a simple campaign for the legislature can cost between $10 and $20 million. Naturally, that money comes from the people who have it: the traffickers, who now control untold numbers of politicians and are even said to have infiltrated the Mexican embassy in Washington.
In late 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón vowed to go to war with the cartels. Backed by a $1.4 billion investment in arms from the U.S. government, his effort has touched off violence that was once thought unimagineable in North America. Modeling their behavior after al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq, Mexican cartels have begun beheading opponents and posting the videos on YouTube. Signs of gruesome torture are routinely found on dead bodies. Upwards of 5,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in 2008 alone, and the blood has begun to run in the streets of Mexico’s tourist towns—the kind of thing that gets international attention.
In 2007, Phoenix, Arizona, set up a special task force to address the flood of violence coming across the border as cartel-related murders, home invasions and kidnappings spiked. In Arizona, as in Mexico, cartel soldiers have disguised themselves as law enforcement, dressing in SWAT gear in order to raid homes and murder those inside. “It wasn’t uncommon to have a new kidnapping case coming into our offices on a daily basis,” Lieutenant Lauri Burgett of the Phoenix Police Department’s violent-crimes bureau told a CBS News investigative team in November 2008.
The 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment names Mexican drug-trafficking organizations—DTOs in governmentese—“the greatest organized crime threat to the United States,” warning that the “influence of Mexican DTOs over domestic drug trafficking is unrivaled. In fact, intelligence estimates indicate a vast majority of the cocaine available in U.S. drug markets is smuggled by Mexican DTOs across the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican DTOs control drug distribution in most U.S. cities, and they are gaining strength in markets that they do not yet control.”
In response, the U.S. and Mexican governments have stepped up combat, vowing to go even harder after the cartels. But south of the border, the government and the cartels are often one and the same. As a retired PRI man told the New Yorker, “When you see what amounts to a military parade in these towns, in which the Army is trooping along on the main avenue while on the side streets people are killing each other…when I see how these [traffickers] are climbing up right into the very beard of the state, I think, Holy fuck! This country could really collapse!”
The drug war has brought the Mexican government to the brink of collapse, making the prospect of a failed state on America’s southern border a very real possibility. Meanwhile, the war costs billions of dollars to wage at home and in Mexico and has swelled the U.S. prison population, bursting state budgets at the seams. It would be one thing if this were merely collateral damage in an otherwise successful effort to reduce drug use. But an estimated 30 percent of Mexico’s arable land is currently being used to grow illegal drugs—and the U.S. appetite for such crops remains undiminished. The party rages on.
Meanwhile, the media has gone on focusing on the ravages of meth, even as its use began to decline., According to federal survey data, American meth use began to tail off by 2002.Another sign that the peak had come and gone was that the media finally caught on. Newsweek ran a 2005 cover story titled “The Meth Epidemic: Inside America’s New Drug Crisis.” In March 2006, the Washington Post ran an equally hysterical piece headlined “The Next Crack Cocaine?” and describing a meth epidemic about to sweep the nation’s capital. I called the law-enforcement folks quoted in the article, as well as a few others, and got a much different story.
“It’s funny—the Washington Post guy asked me that, but we haven’t per se seen any increase in meth possessions here,” Sergeant Shawn A. Urbas, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, police department, told me. The Post had cited his county’s three lab seizures as evidence of a trend, despite his having said otherwise.
“It’s not that big of a deal, but we’re keeping it on the radar,” said Kristine Vander Wall, an intelligence analyst with the Washington/Baltimore bureau of the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, which has looked extensively at meth-usage and -arrest data. “Sometimes the media has a tendency to sensationalize certain drugs. They did it with PCP a year or two ago. My director came to me and said, ‘Kristine, we need to get on top of this PCP,’ and I said, ‘Whoa, let’s analyze this first and see if it’s actually a problem.’”
Captain Mary Gavin, a vice narcotics commander with the Arlington County, Virginia, police department, told me that although she had seen some meth arrests in her jurisdiction, they were less frequent than those for marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. “I’d say it has not hit us hard here,” she said. I asked her to name any drug that was less of a problem than meth in the county. “Steroids,” she said. After a long pause, she added, “And LSD. We don’t see much of that.”
Ryan Grim is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post and has written for Slate, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and the Washington Post. He is a former staff reporter with Politico.com and Washington City Paper. He won the 2007 Alt-Weekly Award for best long-form news-story and is the author of the book, "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America."