As Opioid Overdose Deaths Decline, An Old, Deadly Drug Crisis Comes Back With a Vengeance in Cleveland

The Return of Meth

click to enlarge As Opioid Overdose Deaths Decline, An Old, Deadly Drug Crisis Comes Back With a Vengeance in Cleveland
Design by Steve Miluch

Brad wears sandals even though it's the coldest day of December. He and a few friends greet me at a gas station in East Cleveland. I follow them as they cross the street, squeeze through a tight alleyway, and maneuver through a backyard zoo of mutilated grills and scooters. A door opens with a kick and we descend into a chilly concrete basement.

Brad is short but formidable. Up close, though, a sickly green haunts his hair, his cheeks, his lips, his arms. We step past towers of junk and into hallways filled with crushed Coke cans, stained pipes, and sleeping bags peeking from the shadows.

We enter a den painted in murderous red. In a flash, everyone empties their pockets. Fresh syringes, mini-baggies, and taped paper are thrown onto a black countertop. Brad holds up a plastic pouch of clear shards so I can see it. Crystal meth.

"Meth has come back tremendously," Brad says in a gravelly voice as he tidies the shards in a spoon. "It used to be $200 a gram; now it's like $50. And it helps with the withdrawal and sickness of heroin." He tears the tape off the paper with his teeth and carefully pours a fine mustard powder — "dog," the street name for fentanyl — into the spoon. One of Brad's friends, head mummified in a tight hoodie, adds: "Everyone got used to injecting their drugs — we do it for meth now too." 

Brad squirts some lemon juice onto the meth and fentanyl brew to sterilize it, then extracts the mixture into a syringe. He yanks up his sleeve and points to a gory abscess the size of a half-dollar. "That's from meth," he says.

Brad stabs his forearm with the needle. A small red bead forms at the tip. He fiddles until he hits the vein. Blood rises into the syringe. He sends it back home and draws in a long breath as the hairs on his arm begin to rise.

* * *

Methamphetamine — a stimulant known for its ability to spike energy, focus, and sexual libido, and, more darkly, induce psychosis, days of hellish paranoia, and degenerate orgies — was first synthesized in crystalline form by a Japanese chemist in 1919 using red phosphorus, ephedrine and iodine. Today, production of the drug revolves around finding these chemicals or their equivalents, particularly from cold medicine, the most accessible source of pseudoephedrine.

Meth was once legal, given to Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II before their final missions, and later, sold over the counter to dieters, truck drivers and college students. After being completely outlawed by Congress in 1970, meth production shifted to biker gangs and Mexican cartels. When the Amezcua brothers of the Colima Cartel were arraigned in 1998, the DEA estimated they controlled 80 percent of the American methamphetamine market. The DEA's efforts choked off the cartels' supply of pseudoephedrine for a while, but those efforts precipitated the rise in homeland manufacturing. 

At the time, the most popular technique was the "Nazi method," which substituted anhydrous ammonia, found in fertilizer, for red phosphorus. This method, which required empty acres for the highly suspicious smell to dissipate, imploded into the "red phosphorus" labs like those seen in Breaking Bad. In these kitchens, cooks harvested red phosphorus from striker plates on matchboxes. The labs' relative confinement allowed meth production to spread easily into the suburbs.

Red phosphorus labs had their drawbacks. With more tubing and buckets than a game of Mouse Trap, they were impossible to easily disassemble when law enforcement knocked. This led to a new innovation in meth production, called the "one pot" or "shake and bake" method, in the late 2000s. A 2-liter or Gatorade bottle housed a volatile mixture of pseudoephedrine and lithium. While clandestine, this too had its flaws: "The lithium was twacking out motherfuckers so bad," Brad recalls. "Fucking them in their heads."

On a top floor in the Summit County jail, inspector Bill Holland remembers a simpler time in meth prosecution — when monitoring the local buys of cold medicine could point investigators toward meth cooks. Scene previously reported that from 2000 to 2012, Summit County accounted for a third of all labs discovered across Ohio, with 256 busts inside Akron alone. Local officials speculated this didn't come from higher rates of local usage, but the Akron police department's notoriously dedicated "Methbusters" unit. "We had such strong enforcement on it, we started to see it wane and go away and that's when the opioid crisis struck," Holland says.

The starkly higher body count of the opioid crisis sucked away America's attention. Yet meth stubbornly lingered like a barnacle: On any graph of drug overdoses over the past decade, meth numbers were dwarfed by heroin yet invariably rose. Statewide numbers released this month showed that overdose deaths for all drugs fell across Ohio in 2018, except for one: psychostimulants, the category that includes meth and cocaine. Across the country, meth overdoses more than quadrupled from 2011 to 2017, and across Ohio, drug task forces have reported skyrocketing rates of meth usage.

"Recently, what we've been seeing is a huge uptick in meth seizures and arrests for meth. But what we haven't seen are the meth labs," Holland notes ominously. He describes crystal meth seized on the street that's cheaper and stronger than anything law enforcement has encountered before.

The question is: Where is it coming from?

* * *

Detective Ben Hill, a narcotics detective for the city of Barberton, a suburb of Akron, Ohio, sits in a police cruiser in an abandoned parking lot on Wooster Road. Hill's eyes dart between drivers with the fixation of a hungry cat. "This is where all the drugs come in," he murmurs, stroking his auburn beard. "Here and State Street." 

Hill has been on the force for seven years; he was promoted to narcotics detective in 2017. "Two years ago I started noticing a big influx of meth again," he says. "It seemed like the heroin overdoses went down a bit, and then it just seemed like everybody switched to meth. But it's not the shake and bake crap from before ... everybody has crystal meth now."

Hill clears his throat and declares the culprit: "It's the cartels."

He continues: "They're flooding everywhere with it. They're manufacturing the meth in big labs in Mexico and shipping it up here in liquid form, and then finishing it up in places around here — adding acetone and hardening it into crystals. Big scale stuff." 

Border seizures confirm the phenomenon surfacing thousands of miles away in Summit County. In 2014, 19,613 pounds of methamphetamine was confiscated at the southern border. In 2019, that number more than tripled to 68,585 pounds. For comparison's sake, heroin seizures inched up from 4,356 to 5,427 pounds in the same time period. Just last year, in Hudson, two Mexican nationals and a Cleveland man were charged with possession of over 140 pounds of methamphetamine — the largest meth seizure in Ohio history.

After a few minutes, Hill's police radio crackles with a request for backup. He deciphers the message for me — "the driver just tried to jump out of the car" — and jams the stick down, the engine yowling.

Moments later, we screech onto a cul-de-sac crosshatched by the shadows of bare trees. The attending officer is patting down the handcuffed driver. Hill strides over to help. The driver is skinny, almost emaciated, wearing an oversized shirt and a fake chain and a tilted hat. The officers ask to search him. He consents, but when they reach into the gym shorts underneath his jeans, all hell breaks loose. 

The driver starts smashing his head against his car and caterwauling toward the sky. "I can't go back to county," he wails. Hill gingerly extracts a few baggies from the driver's shorts. It hasn't been one hour with Detective Hill and he's already found the drug du jour. He holds up a plastic pouch of clear shards so I can see it. Crystal meth.

* * *

History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. Methamphetamine's return as the primary drug of choice is a wormhole back to 2006, when the U.N. World Drug Report called meth the most abused hard drug on the planet, or 1998, when the Mexican cartels dominated its means of production. 

This epoch, however, is distinctly characterized by meth's relationship with opioids. In an obvious carryover from heroin usage, a majority of meth users now inject the drug as opposed to smoking it. Cindy Koumoutzis, executive director of drug advocacy nonprofit OhioCAN, estimates that at least 60 percent of participants in the Canton needle exchange program are meth users. "Five years ago, that number would have been 10 percent," she says. "But someone with prior heroin usage, they're not afraid of that needle."

Various street legends have transformed meth into an appealing supplement, if not replacement, for heroin. The fear of heroin being cut with fentanyl has led to users loading their syringes with meth as a buffer against fentanyl's kiss of death. Veteran users still experiment with fentanyl, but they prefer to mix it themselves, as Brad did.

The theory is that combining an upper and a downer would keep your heart racing in the event of an overdose. "I haven't seen an official study on it, but it doesn't easily make sense," says Doug Smith, medical director of the Summit County Addiction Mental Health Services Board. "The effects of meth are more on blood pressure, pulse, heart rate — the autonomic nervous system — whereas opiates suppress your respiratory drive, the animal part of your brain where it tells you you don't need to breathe."

Fentanyl's insidious nature has led to another piece of drug lore: that meth is more trustworthy — less likely to be laced with fentanyl — than other hard drugs. This has some bearing in reality: Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation statistics confirm that only 2.8 percent of confiscated meth is cut with fentanyl, compared to 11 percent of cocaine. Detective Hill noted that the old-school homemade "shake and bake" methods were "cut 100 times," but one "can't really cut crystal meth, because you can see the crystals — it's chunks instead of powder."

Other claims helped meth climb atop the rubble of the opioid crisis: There is no physical withdrawal from meth (though the psychological withdrawal can be horrifying); cheap meth can provide precious dopamine when the dope runs low; meth works for those on Suboxone or other opioid blockers. These are all basically true. But meth is still highly addictive, recovery rates are traditionally low, and it thrashes one's beauty with sores and rot and decay. It may not kill easily, but it certainly zombifies.

* * *

The driver who Hill arrested is trying to kick out the windows of the other police cruiser. "Hold on," Hill says. He opens the door and bends his head inside. The screams stop. Hill gets in the car and we begin driving back to the station. "That's how people on meth are — they're just over the top," he says. "They get angry really, really fast."

Hill silenced the man with the promise that he could work off his charges. In this way, meth has become subsumed into more traditional narcotics work. "There used to be a big difference back when the cartels weren't involved," Hill remembers. "I don't want to say it was easier, but we had more tools. I could watch the pseudoephedrine logs and see who was buying and where they're going."

Now, with production outsourced south of the border, Hill follows the protocol he would for cocaine from Colombia or heroin from Afghanistan: After arresting someone for possession, he tries to get them to do three buys from a drug house, then he gets a warrant for the drug house, then he raids the drug house. "I do two months of work for 10 minutes of fun," he remarks dryly.

Most people Hill nabs are low-level street dealers three or four degrees of separation from the cartels. He is confident, though, that there's a cartel house in Barberton, and "plenty in Akron." When he catches a whiff of such bigger machinations, he turns it over to the Summit County Drug Task Force or the feds.

For all his efforts, Hill acknowledges he is just chopping off the tentacles of a Cthulu that will soon regrow them. "I'd like to think we're making a difference, but I'm not stupid," he says. "As soon as you take a meth house down, another one pops up. But it makes a difference to those neighbors who are complaining that there's drug traffic coming in and out, that there's needles laying around. They call me and say, 'Thank you so much for getting that out of my neighborhood.'"

Back at the station, Hill and I crowd into a small evidence room to weigh the meth, test it, and laminate it in case of a trial. He drops the meth into a small plastic baggie with three tubes and then crushes the tubes. A liquid forms the color of amber — a positive identification. Crystal meth.

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