SIOUX CITY -- Based on a rising number of drug users seeking treatment, methamphetamine use in Iowa is increasing, state public health officials announced recently.
Law enforcement officers say use of the highly addictive drug has remained high since the 1990s, when news stories about users cooking meth in their bathtubs and stealing anhydrous ammonia from cornfields seemed to be the subject of nightly news documentaries. Making matters worse, they say, meth users nowadays are getting a higher-quality product.
"I don't think this area's appetite for meth has ever decreased," Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew said. "It just seems that there's an uptick in meth again."
Iowa Department of Public Health statistics show a 38 percent increase in meth treatment admissions from 2014-17. From 2011-17, annual meth-related deaths in the state rose from 12 to 96.
The increasing treatment trend is mirrored locally.
Jackson Recovery Centers in Sioux City reported that from 2015 to 2018, the number of patients reporting methamphetamine as their drug of choice has risen from 618 to 917. Those numbers do not include users who listed a different substance as their drug of choice, but also use meth.
"It's cheap, it's available, and it seems that addiction in general is going up," said Dr. David Paulsrud, Jackson Recovery's medical director.
Iowa's meth-related death rate is probably higher than reported, Paulsrud said, because some victims' causes of death may be listed as a stroke or some other medical condition caused by drug use.
"Methamphetamine is vicious," Paulsrud said. "It's just the ugliest thing there ever was. We have a number of people successfully treating for opioid addiction, but they can't stay away from meth."
The addiction statistics are no surprise to law enforcement officials.
"In our area, it's pretty much stayed steady the last five to 10 years," said Sgt. Troy Hansen, a member of the Sioux City Police Department's street level drug unit and a former Tri-State Drug Task Force member.
Meth use in the area remains at epidemic levels, a federal agent said.
"It's very prevalent here. It's highly abused. I would say it's still an epidemic," said Mark Minten, acting resident in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Sioux City and a member of Tri-State Drug Task Force.
What's changed is the purity level of the drug. Ten years ago, Minten said, the purity of meth seized was often around 20 percent. Now it's usually 90 percent or higher.
"Potency is definitely higher," he said.
The low-purity meth of a decade ago tended to be locally produced. State laws that restrict the purchase of the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, one of the main ingredients in meth, has reduced meth manufacturing in the area.
Much of the drug now found in the area, Minten said, comes from labs in Mexico, most of it smuggled into the United States in rail cars, vehicles and trucks that cross at border checkpoints or sent via mail and parcel services.
That higher purity affects addiction levels in more ways than one, said Polly Carver-Kimm, Iowa Department of Public Health communications director.
The increased purity may make the drug more addictive, she said, but the frequency of use and amount used usually is a bigger culprit. Meth has become cheaper, so users can afford to buy and use more of the drug.
"The fact that potency has increased means a person's money goes even further, which can support more frequent use," Carver-Kimm said.
The increased purity is likely a factor in the increase of meth-related deaths, she said, as users accustomed to taking lower-quality meth take the same quantity of the drug that, unknown to them, is more pure, potent and, potentially, dangerous.
Those changes in the fight against meth have gotten less public attention than they would have in the 1990s. Since then, the public discussion about meth has died down, though it remains as serious a problem for law enforcement.
"I don't know if people just got used to it and don't pay attention anymore," Hansen said.
Law enforcement and the treatment community continue to pay attention to it. Drew said eliminating meth trafficking and use will continue to be a challenge, likely for a long time.
"Will it ever be taken care of? No," he said.