As nation faces opioid epidemic, in Nebraska and Iowa, meth is still the ‘No. 1 threat’

Methamphetamine has dropped out of the public spotlight since the time, more than a decade ago, when it was labeled “America’s most dangerous drug.”

But the highly addictive stimulant is at least as common now as it ever was in Nebraska, far outpacing the opioids plaguing many other states.

Consider:

» The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Nebraska prosecuted nearly five times as many meth-related cases last year as in 2007, and meth accounted for nearly 93 percent of drug prosecutions last year.

» The Omaha Police Department made 668 meth-related arrests last year, more than twice the number five years earlier.

» The rate of Nebraskans seeking meth treatment was higher in 2015 than in any year back to 2000. Only alcohol sent more people into treatment.

» Meth factors in to more Nebraska child welfare cases than any other drug. Parents of nearly one in three Nebraska foster children use meth.

“Right now, meth is very abundant,” said Brenda Daley, coordinator for the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, a regional drug-control effort. “It’s supply and demand, and there is a lot of supply.”

The area’s last surge in meth use occurred in the early 2000s.

At that time, meth was a target of concern across the nation. The drug’s popularity brought with it a proliferation of explosive and hazardous home meth-making laboratories.

“At one point it was probably on everyone’s mind,” said Detective Greg Chase of the Southwest Iowa Narcotics Enforcement Task Force and Council Bluffs Police Department.

Nebraska and Iowa saw a dip in use after they and the federal government passed laws restricting sales of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant and key meth-making ingredient.

The laws require pseudoephedrine to be kept behind pharmacy counters. Buyers have to show identification and are logged in a statewide database.

The mom-and-pop meth labs virtually disappeared after the restrictions took effect.

In 2005, the Nebraska State Patrol busted 252 meth labs and Iowa law enforcement seized 760 labs. Last year, Nebraska authorities found only three labs, while Iowa authorities found 85.

“We’re almost to the point where meth labs have been eliminated,” said Sgt. Dave Bianchi of the Omaha Police Department’s narcotics unit. “It’s almost gone the way of unicorns. Extremely rare.”

The decline in use that followed the demise of home labs was short-lived, though.

International drug cartels soon stepped in to fill the gap in production, pumping high volumes of highly potent meth into Nebraska and other states from large-scale laboratories in Mexico.

As a result, law enforcement officials throughout the Midwest continue to rank meth as the top drug threat to the region, according to a survey by the Midwest HIDTA.

That differs from the eastern United States, where heroin and prescription opioids have replaced meth and cocaine as top concerns in recent years.

Opioid use also is increasing in Nebraska and Iowa, along with the numbers of overdose deaths, Daley said.

But meth remains the most common hard-core drug with the greatest impact in the two states.

“It’s been our No. 1 threat since 2005,” said Lt. Jason Scott of the Nebraska State Patrol. “It’s always there.”

Nebraska law enforcement points to meth as the drug that contributes most to violent and property crimes in the state, the survey found.

Users tend to be young white adults, who can be from any corner of the state. In fact, child-removal statistics suggest that meth is more common in rural parts of the state than in urban Omaha.

“If you were to drive west on I-80, every town is going to have (a meth) problem,” said Darin Thimmesch, an agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Omaha office.

The drug comes north from Mexico via the nation’s Interstates, hidden in private and commercial vehicles. Sometimes the drugs travel by mail.

Situated at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 29, Omaha has become a trafficking hub, several in law enforcement said.

Drugs and money flow in and out of the city to be transported throughout the Midwest. Last year the Nebraska State Patrol seized 71 pounds of meth on the state’s highways.

In February 2016, a record-breaking bust resulted in the arrests of 64 people across Nebraska and into Colorado. The yearlong investigation was orchestrated among 30 agencies, targeting mostly dealers at the end of distribution networks.

Meth collected from the bust came from four states — Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Utah — but could be traced to Mexico.

Mexican cartels control most of the trafficking, with the Sinaloa cartel dominant in the region.

Those caught smuggling face stiff penalties — up to life imprisonment under state and federal laws — depending on the circumstances. But rather than cases slowing down, authorities have seen them increase in recent years and drug availability grow.

“The price is as low as it’s ever been and the purity as high as it’s ever been,” Thimmesch said.

Several years ago, wholesale prices for meth ranged from $15,000 to $20,000 a pound, he said. These days the price for that pound has dropped to between $3,000 and $5,000.

On the street, one-sixteenth of an ounce — called a teener — can sell for $100, Bianchi said. That small amount can equal four uses.

Meanwhile, the purity of the meth that is available has increased.

In 2008 the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation lab reported an average purity of 35 percent for meth seized by law enforcement. By 2013, the average was 93 percent. Law enforcement agencies across the Midwest report that the influx of meth from large Mexican laboratories has pushed purity levels to 90 percent or more.

That means a given amount of meth, once mixed with filler ingredients, can supply more users. It also means the high that meth users get likely packs a larger punch, Daley said.

“It’s become almost a perfect science,” said Lt. Scott Wagner of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s narcotics division. “(Cartels have) chemists doing it. Millions and millions of dollars put into these labs.”

Scott, of the State Patrol, said he doesn’t expect a change in the situation anytime soon.

“I don’t want to say we’re not winning,” he said. “Every time we pull a kilo of meth, that’s a win. That’s a pound of meth that’s not going to be grammed out and sold to our community.

“But it’s a supply-and-demand issue and a numbers game,” he said. “There’s a ton of meth out there.”

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