DES MOINES — Clandestine methamphetamine labs, once the scourge of the Iowa countryside, may no longer be Breaking Bad as much as they’re breaking up.
Iowa has gone from leading the nation in the number of meth labs being seized and manufacturing equipment being discovered in mid-2004 to just 33 lab responses so far this year — the lowest since 1996.
According to the 2018 Iowa Drug Control Strategy report released this month by the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, this year’s seizures compare with about 1,500 responses to meth labs by state and local authorities in 2004.
Steven Lukan, who was director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy until being appointed last week as director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said the gradual demise of Iowans engaged in home-cooking of meth was a testament to good public policy, citizens willing to adapt to law changes targeting meth-making ingredients and a coordinated law enforcement effort.
“I think it’s a good success story, really, when good policy is put into place and the public adopts it, as well,” he said. “I think by and large Iowans really just wanted these things rooted out of their communities. They still happen, but the fact that we’ve made such progress is just a testament to policymakers and local communities working together. I think some good things have been accomplished there.”
But probably an even bigger factor in eradicating clandestine meth labs has been basic supply-and-demand economics, said Dan Stepleton, special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement. An influx of high-purity “ice” methamphetamine from the West Coast and Mexico has helped drive small cookers from the marketplace, he said.
“The purity levels are completely off the charts compared to what the manufacturing process for the mom-and-pop labs around here are,” said Stepleton. He said imported ice being sold in Iowa is considered more than 97 percent pure, versus 50 percent pure for the locally produced drugs.
“I think that’s probably what has caused a lot of the labs to dwindle down,” he added. “I don’t think the problem has gone away. The manufacturing problem has really curtailed a lot, and that hopefully will take care of a lot of contamination with vehicles and structures within the state of Iowa.
“But definitely the other end of that spectrum is just the prolific amounts of methamphetamine that we’re getting and the unusually high purity,” he added. “That’s just absolutely phenomenal as far as what’s coming into the state of Iowa and what’s getting sold on the streets.”
Purity rises, prices fall
The latest statewide report indicates meth remains a top drug of choice in Iowa for users.
Stepleton said ice meth remains a top seller because the price has gone down as the purity has gone up. He said controlled buys by undercover officers used to be for $1,800 to $2,000 an ounce, but now are for about $800 an ounce.
“Everything’s dropped pretty significantly as far as the bulk prices just because of how prevalent it is in the state of Iowa right now,” he said. “And I think you’re going to continue to see the court cases are going to go up, sentencing cases are going to go up, just because of the sheer amount of ice methamphetamine that we’re working.”
Stepleton said Iowans who were cooking meth before have found that it’s no longer worth the risk and instead are opting to buy meth from drug trafficking organizations and “super-labs.”
State laws — such as controls on the sale of pseudoephedrine in 2005 — successfully have curbed most of the large labs by making it difficult to get ingredients needed to cook meth.
State legislation to implement a real-time, electronic, pseudoephedrine tracking system was implemented in 2010. The system connects all pharmacies to identify those who attempt to illegally purchase more than their daily or monthly limit to make methamphetamine.
Meth is one of the few drugs of abuse that can be easily synthesized using common items, Lukan noted.
Small one-pot or “shake ’n’ bake” labs still pose a serious threat to Iowans because the methods generally use less pseudoephedrine and produce meth in smaller quantities — but are no less dangerous.
They involve putting toxic chemicals in a plastic bottle, causing an extremely high amount of pressure to build up that can lead to fires and injuries.
Stepleton said occasionally a law officer was injured but none have died taking down a clandestine lab.
“Most of the time it was usually the cookers themselves that would end up with all the burn marks,” he said. “There was a lot of burn defendants that ended up at the (University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics) or some of our major hospitals. We’re just not seeing that anymore.
“We kind of progressed from the anhydrous ammonia cooks to the one-pot cooks, and then the one-pot cooks kind of phased out a couple years ago, but they ran pretty good for about four or five years,” he added.
The smuggled meth is being moved throughout the country by drug trafficking organizations such as Mexican cartels, Stepleton said. Suppliers sell it to midlevel dealers, who in turn sell it to small-level dealers.
“Meth flowing into the state is pretty prevalent right now,” Stepleton said. “We’re looking at some of the bigger cases that we’ve ever worked — as far as multiple pounds and huge drug trafficking organizations.”
Of the 46,429 substance use disorder treatment admissions during fiscal 2017, those citing methamphetamine as their primary substance reached an all-time high of nearly 1 in 5, Lukan noted.
As law enforcement officers reported seizing relatively large and pure shipments of smuggled methamphetamine, meth-related prison admissions last year reached a level not seen since the height of meth lab activity 12 years ago (586 in fiscal 2017 versus 702 in 2005), fueling an overall increase in drug-related prison admissions for a third straight year (902 in 2016 compared with 942 in 2014), according to the latest statewide report.
“It seems like it’s very generational,” Lukan noted. “If you talk to law enforcement, you hear that a lot, too — that families have been affected by it for three generations now. Once it’s in the household, it’s hard to get out.”