Nov 18 9:00 PM

'Ice': Not your mother's meth

Guillermo Arias/AP

May 20, 2014 Update:

The U.S. had long been the methamphetamines leader on the North American continent, but that’s changed in the last couple of years, according to the U.N.’s annual report on global synthetic drugs, published Tuesday. Mexico is producing more of our meth, making it much cheaper, and way more pure. On the street, it’s known as “ice.”

In 2007, there were a reported 20 meth labs in Mexico, which ballooned to 260 in 2012, according to the U.N. This is just a fraction of the 13,000 meth labs dismantled in the U.S. that year, but the quantity seized in Mexico is still higher. While American meth labs are largely small-scale operations, Mexico, it seems, has more super-labs pumping out more product.

In November, America Tonight followed an Arkansas mother, who uses the old “shake-and-bake” method to produce meth, and her son, who prefers the new Mexican-imported “ice.” Their stories illustrate how the economics of the drug trade are changing the face of addiction. Tune into the report this evening at 9 ET / 6 PT.


Veronica prepares meth for injection.
America Tonight

“We’re going to improvise,” said Veronica, after being denied Sudafed at two pharmacies for failing to have a history of prescription with them. “I ain’t quitting.”

Veronica, 43, has been addicted to methamphetamine for more than a third of her life. She makes her meth at home, but that’s getting harder. In recent years, Arkansas, like most states, has passed heavy restrictions on the key ingredient pseudoephedrine, found in decongestants.

On this occasion, Veronica’s 26-year-old son Teddy came to the rescue, with his stash of methamphetamine “ice” – a cheaper, ready-to-use concoction, trafficked into the American heartland by Mexican drug cartels. It’s named for its prettier, bluish-white shine, straight out of a winter wonderland.

In Arkansas, pseudoephedrine regulations have seriously reduced the amount of "shaking-and-baking" – cooking personal doses of meth in a plastic bottle -- and the home explosions and burn injuries that came along with it, according to Bill Bradley, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Arkansas. But the rules have done nothing to curb abuse.

“I saw dad put on the lid and shake it so much, shake ‘em up, and pop, pshhh!”

6-year-old boy

Father addicted to meth

The rise of ice is simple economics. With the smalltime meth-maker crushed by regulations, “superlabs” abroad have swooped in to steal the marketshare. As much as 80 percent of the meth sold in the U.S. is a Mexican import, according to DEA calculations reported by the Associated Press. And since 2007, it has become cheaper and purer. Bradley said there’s in fact more meth now in rural areas than there was before the restrictions.

Teddy, who has been using meth since he was 14, said it’s only old-timers like his mom who even try to make their own meth anymore. Buying meth pre-packaged is also considered safer than trying to brew it at home. In about 40 percent of shake-and-bakes, someone gets badly injured, said Chris Harrison, the chief chemist at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory.

In 2012, a doctor at the burn center of Mercy Hospital in St. Louis told KJRH that 15 percent of the patients were injured in meth lab fires.

“I saw dad put on the lid and shake it so much, shake ‘em up, and pop, pshhh!” a 6-year-old boy told America Tonight about the time a shake-and-bake set his house on fire, burning his right arm. “…I just saw a big explosion. It just went pshhooo! I just saw it explode. I just saw the house explode.”

Asked why the adults in his home shake up plastic bottles that can do such scary things, the boy replied: “They think it’s for fun.” 

“People refer to it as the ‘walk-away drug.' You walk away from everything that was ever important to you and all you care about is that next high.”

Chris Harrison

Chief chemist at the Arkansas State Crime Lab

Ice provides the high, without the risk of five-degree burns.

“There’s really no need for cooking meth no more,” Teddy said. “Why take all the risk and doing that, if the Mexicans are bringing it over by the truckloads. I can buy way larger amounts and a dirt-cheap price.”

But ice is also more potent than meth cooked at home, sometimes 80 or even 90 percent pure, according to the DEA. With a cleaner and more intense high, and a lower price, ice is not only supplanting homegrown meth; it’s capturing an entirely new customer base.

“When you talk to our state and local counterparts and ask what the number one drug problem there is, and they’ll say methamphetamine ice,” Bradley said.  

It’s a worrying development in rural communities already decimated by decades of meth abuse.

“People refer to it as the ‘walk-away drug,’” Harrison said. “You walk away from everything that was ever important to you and all you care about is that next high.”

From the perspective of the user, however, there’s now a better, safer product on the shelf.

“Everybody’s winning,” Teddy said. “I’m winning. [The Mexican cartels] are winning. It’s all good, where everybody’s happy.” 



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