The link between crystal meth and the pharmaceutical industry is not immediately obvious.
Meth production doesn't depend on agriculture. While the ingredients of narcotics must be grown, meth depends on pseudoephedrine. It's the active ingredient found in decongestants. Illegal labs easily convert pseudoephedrine into methamphetamine.
Meth provides a euphoric high. Users report that the feeling is so intense that every other experience seems hollow. They are immediately hooked, intent on finding the next hit.
The effect on health is devastating. Skin tissue and blood vessels are destroyed. Teeth fall out and open skin sores appear. Liver damage and convulsions ravage users. They become frail and gaunt as health deteriorates; eventually they become barely recognizable caricatures of their former selves.
Canada could take some lessons on how to control meth production from Oregon, the first state to be ravaged by meth. Fifteen years ago, meth was devastating whole communities. One user's solution to the epidemic was drastic: "they should just bomb this whole area, it's that bad," she told PBS network's Frontline.
By 2002, one-half of police arrests in Oregon were due to meth users involved in crime in order to maintain their habit. They committed 85 per cent of the property crimes. One-half of children taken into child protection custody were from the parents of meth addicts.
Steve Suo, a reporter for the Oregonian newspaper, decided to get to the bottom of it. His investigations uncovered a previously unexplained rise and fall in meth use in which arrests, admissions to drug-rehabilitation programs and the strength of meth were in sync.
In turn, Suo found that as pseudoephedrine became more accessible, the toxicity of meth increased. His findings prompted Oregon to restrict the sale of decongestants by moving them behind the counter of drug stores and requiring ID from buyers. But that only drove the cook kitchens out of Oregon and into larger meth labs in Mexico where the scale of operations escalated.
Where small-time biker labs used the dangerous "shake and bake" method to produce low potency meth, Mexican drug cartels produced some serious stuff. Instead of buying pseudoephedrine from the drug store, the cartels went right to the source and bought it by the ton; places like the Krebs factory in India, just one of nine worldwide factories that made pseudoephedrine.
The effect of cheap, potent meth on the streets was predictable. It corresponded to a peak in meth rhythms of the mid-90s observed. Not only did drug cartels produce meth in mass amounts, they used existing distribution networks to spread the misery to more states. When the Krebs source was cut off, the potency of meth dropped until a new source was found in Quebec.
When the Quebec source dried up, meth cooks hired "smurfs" to scurry around to drug stores to buy as many boxes of decongestants as then could. Attempts by various states to further restrict the sale of decongestants were met with stiff resistance from pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer who make millions of dollars selling pseudoephedrine. You can be sure not all buyers have colds and runny noses.
Oregon finally took decisive action and enacted legislation banning the sale of pseudoephedrine without prescription. Seven more states are considering similar legislation. The effect has been dramatic. Meth-associated arrests in Oregon are down to just five per cent of totals from the previous total of 50.
Meanwhile, "smurfs" find easy pickings in Canada where decongestants are readily purchased over the counter. As long as there is easy access in any part of North America, the scourge of meth will continue to devastate lives and drive up crime rates.