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One meth problem replaces another
- Nick Budnick
- Portland Tribune - News
BACK STORY: State labs disappear; Mexican cartels step in
It somehow seems wrong to hear police officers say these things.
'There's a lot more meth than there ever was before,' said sheriff's deputy Tim Wonacott of Multnomah County's Special Investigations Unit.
'In the last year and a half we've seized more meth than we ever have,' said Sgt. Ned Walls, who works with Wonacott on the county drug team. 'The quantity of (meth) has gone up significantly.'
'There's so much, it's ridiculous,' agreed Mark DeLong, a 23-year Portland Police Bureau cop who focuses on meth-related crime. 'In my first 20 years as an officer the most I ever saw was 2 ounces; now it's common to pull over a car with 9 ounces or a pound and a half.'
What seems wrong about hearing these observations is that two years ago, amid much self-congratulatory hoopla, Oregon adopted the most stringent anti-meth laws in the nation - eliminating key ingredients for local meth cooks and kick-starting a national, even global war on what many consider the most addictive and disturbing illegal narcotic.
Today, it's undeniable that Oregon's laws were hugely successful in one area: The meth labs that endangered children and created hidden toxic waste dumps in basements and backyards across the state have been all but eliminated.
As the officers indicate, however, that success has borne unintended consequences - thanks to a massive influx of meth supplied by Mexican drug cartels.
Interviews with numerous local law enforcement officials and several meth addiction counselors - as well as a pending federal meth case investigated by the Portland Tribune's news partner, Fox News 12 - suggest that Oregon's legislative changes contributed to a radical transformation in the underground meth economy, one that in some ways is making the problem even more difficult to fight.
'The labs are gone, but there's more meth,' said a longtime Portland Police Bureau drug cop, Sgt. Brian Schmautz, who stressed that he was only speaking for himself, not the agency.
'I'm not saying (Oregon's meth laws are) not a good thing,' he said. 'But we shouldn't be fooled and say we have less meth, or less meth-related crime.'
Drug definitely had impact
It wasn't so long ago that methamphetamine was less prominent in the public's awareness.
Made from common ingredients, and bearing street names such as crank, speed, ice and crystal, it rose in popularity even as the stories began spreading of a drug that rots teeth, causes unsightly sores, and alters the functioning of one's brain dramatically for the worse.
Parents of addicts found themselves putting locks on every door in the house to keep family possessions from being hocked for drugs.
Low-income advocates observed Portland's streets becoming more violent as meth replaced heroin as the drug of choice for homeless drug users.
Cops started seeing meth-related crimes of violence that occurred with shocking savagery. And meth brought with it a wave of identity theft, against which old forms of personal security were no protection.
More disturbing than anything, cops say, was the seemingly symbiotic relationship between meth and crimes against children, including sex abuse and neglect.
'We were taking kids left and right,' said Wonacott, who is grateful Oregon's meth labs now are all but extinct. 'It was just heartbreaking, because we (officers) all have kids. And once (meth cooks) have a lab, their kids become secondary.'
Controls put damper on labs
In 2005, Oregon lawmakers approved a law regulating cold medicine that contained the main ingredient used to cook meth, pseudoephedrine, propelled largely by a series of articles in The Oregonian.
Reporter Steve Suo's investigation, which found a correlation between pseudoephedrine supply and meth usage nationwide, fueled not only a change in Oregon, but in Congress as well - which in turn led to increased international controls and pressure on the world supply of pseudoephedrine.
The anti-meth push has transformed the underground economy of the drug in Oregon. On the plus side, the number of Oregon meth labs or dumpsites of meth-related chemicals discovered by law enforcement has plummeted from a high of 584 in 2001 to 14 so far this year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In neighboring Washington state, the equivalent number this year already is 199. In that state, 'they don't have the pseudoephedrine controls we do,' said John Diets, Oregon's top federal drug prosecutor.
No definitive numbers exist to verify cops' claims that meth's availability today is, if anything, greater than it was two years ago. Some national statistics suggest the number of meth users is down, though few observers are ready to proclaim the apparent gains are necessarily real or permanent.
What's clear, however, is that the transformation of the meth economy, shifting the source of supply to superlabs in Southern California and Mexico, has made cops' jobs harder.
Previously, police say, meth was a 'white boy' drug, and the bulk of the supply was generated by local 'mom and pop' meth cooks, most of whom also were users, or 'tweakers.'
Due to the mind-altering effects of the drug, local cops were more than a match for the tweaker-dealers who dominated the landscape of meth in Oregon. They were 'the easiest people in the world to bust,' Walls said.
'They are just total morons,' Wonacott said. 'They'll do stupid stuff, and they'll do it all day long.'
Now it's 'Wal-Mart of dope'
In stark contrast, the new meth distribution rings that dominate Oregon's meth business are operated by Mexican organized-crime cartels. They are smarter and more creative and businesslike, according to Sgt. Pat Walsh of the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice Division.
'They are the Wal-Mart of dope,' he said. While neither he nor other cops said they prefer the days of local meth labs, many said that by removing the cartels' mom and pop competitors, the Oregon law even may have increased the supply of meth. 'I think most dope cops feel that way,' Walsh said.
The new reality can be seen in the bust of one of the West Coast's largest smuggling rings, researched by Fox News 12 reporter David Wilson. Now pending in the federal District Court of Oregon, the case involves meth allegedly smuggled from a Mexican superlab.
A two-year investigation called Operation Global Warming led to a series of raids in March 2005 by federal, state and local cops. They arrested several men, including Ricardo and Octavio Mendoza-Morales, as well as other alleged members of their Hillsboro-based distribution ring - finding meth stashed in cars, a barn and even a lawnmower bag.
The feds also busted an affiliated cell in California. At the end of the day, the probe netted more than 40 pounds of meth. Subsequent arrests resulted in seizures of more than a dozen additional pounds.
Police say the case illustrates the obstacles they increasingly face. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are sending convoys of cars up Interstate 5, with the lead vehicles looking out for troopers and the secondary ones equipped with hard-to-find electronically activated secret compartments.
The case, set for trial in January, also shows why cops feel that in the new world of meth, the odds have shifted against law enforcement. The federal investigation took thousands of officer-hours of intense surveillance.
The raids yielded roughly $200,000 in federal seizures - a paltry sum considering the size of the smuggling operation. According to court documents, none of the major defendants cooperated with authorities. Meanwhile, other smuggling rings promptly sprang up to fill the demand.
In short, the most successful victory that Oregon cops have scored in the war on meth hardly disrupted the flow of the drug.
'The unfortunate problem is that in the Portland metropolitan area you've got a (population) base here, and the traffickers are going to (service) it,' said Frank Romanaggi, commander of a Portland-based group of federal, state and local cops called the Regional Organized Crime and Narcotics task force. 'So as you take a group out, another group shows up.'
He said that increasingly, in addition to penetrating a criminal underworld, drug cops also must infiltrate a foreign culture - meaning more time and expense, exacerbated by an unmet need for Hispanic informants. He estimated that cops' interdiction efforts stop only a small portion of the incoming Mexican meth.
He was echoed by Cowlitz County sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Tate, head of a southern Washington interagency drug task force.
'When it was meth labs that we were focusing on, it was pretty straightforward,' he said. 'Now, we have the perception that all we get are the runners, the low-level figures, (and) that we're overrun, and we can't effect change.'
'We're kind of bailing the ocean with a Dixie cup,' said DeLong, the Portland cop.
Cops say the Mexican cartels are for the most part safely out of reach. As an example of what cops are dealing with, Walsh, the Portland drug sergeant, holds up plastic evidence bags containing 2.5 pounds of meth crystals that look like yellowish shards of ice.
Two Mexicans were arrested with the meth in January and released on bail. Walsh suspects they'll simply head for another part of the country, sent there to deal.
Few low-level dealers will turn on higher-ups for fear that they or their families back in Mexico will be murdered.
Price is up; quality's down
Diets, the federal drug prosecutor, said no one knows for sure how much meth is coming into Oregon. The availability 'is just fairly steady,' he said.
He and his boss, U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut, however, cite what seem to be encouraging signs, such as that the price of meth is up significantly - from $700 to $1,100 per ounce in the Portland area, cops say.
The purity of the meth seized by the feds nationwide is significantly down - potentially meaning that crackdowns on the flow of pseudoephedrine in the U.S. and in Mexico are having an effect.
The Mexican government's crackdown on meth, however, comes at a time when it is in line to receive $1.4 billion in U.S aid for its police and military - timing that has sparked considerable skepticism in Congress that the recent progress will be maintained in the face of endemic government corruption in that country.
In any event, Immergut acknowledged that there's truth in local cops' complaint that the feds are not doing enough.
'DEA has been strapped,' Immergut said. 'They haven't been able to cover the state as much as we'd like.'
She and Diets also faulted Oregon's drug-sentencing laws, which they said are so weak that to disrupt the flow of illegal narcotics, federal prosecutors in this state spend precious time on low- to mid-level cases that elsewhere are handled by state and local prosecutors.
'Oregon has one of the (nation's) softest drug-sentencing schemes,' Diets said. 'About one-fourth to one-third of our caseload are what would typically be state cases in other parts of the country.'
Immergut agrees with local cops that enforcement is only part of the solution - more and better treatment programs are needed as well as public education to spread the message.
'Are you really going to be able to stop it completely? I don't know, but we're still going to continue to fight it,' Immergut said. 'It's a terrible drug.'
Fox News 12 reporter David Wilson contributed to this story.