PORTLAND, Ore. — They huddled against the biting wind, pacing from one corner to another hoping to score heroin or pills. But a different drug was far more likely to be on offer outside the train station downtown, where homeless drug users live in tents pitched on the sidewalk.
“Everybody has meth around here — everybody,” said Sean, a 27-year-old heroin user who hangs out downtown and gave only his first name. “It’s the easiest to find.”
The scourge of crystal meth, with its exploding labs and ruinous effect on teeth and skin, has been all but forgotten amid national concern over the opioid crisis. But 12 years after Congress took aggressive action to curtail it, Crystal meth for sale has returned with a vengeance. Here in Oregon, meth-related deaths vastly outnumber those from heroin. At the United States border, agents are seizing 10 to 20 times the amounts they did a decade ago. Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper, or more lethal.
Oregon took a hard line against meth in 2006 when it began requiring a doctor’s prescription to buy the nasal decongestant used to make it. “It was like someone turned off a switch,” said J.R. Ujifusa, a senior prosecutor in Multnomah County, which includes Portland.
“But where there is a void,” he added, “someone fills it.”
The decades-long effort to fight methamphetamine is a tale with two takeaways. One: The number of domestic meth labs has declined precipitously, and along with it the number of children harmed and police officers sickened by exposure to dangerous chemicals. But also, two: There is more meth on the streets today, more people are using it, and more of them are dying.
Drugs go through cycles — in the 1980s and early ’90s, the use of crack cocaine surged. In the early 2000s, meth made from pseudoephedrine, the decongestant in drugstore products like Sudafed, poured out of domestic labs like those in the early seasons of the hit television show “Breaking Bad.”
Narcotics squads became glorified hazmat teams, spending entire shifts on cleanup. In 2004, the Portland police responded to 114 meth houses. “We rolled from meth lab to meth lab,” said Sgt. Jan M. Kubic of the county sheriff’s office. “Patrol would roll up on a domestic violence call, and there’d be a lab in the kitchen. Everything would come to a screeching halt.”
In 2005 Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Act, which put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, limited sales to 7.5 grams per customer in a 30-day period and required pharmacies to track sales. Although some meth makers tried “smurfing,” sending emissaries to several stores to make purchases, meth cases plummeted.
She Craved Salt and Felt Nauseated for Months. What Was Wrong?
Early Works by Edward Hopper Found to Be Copies of Other Artists
How to Read a Wine Label, in 12 Easy Lessons
States like Oregon and Mississippi required a prescription, making smurfing almost impossible. And a new epidemic took hold: prescription painkillers and opiates like heroin. With no more meth lab explosions on the nightly news, the public forgot about the drug.
But meth, it turns out, was only on hiatus. When the ingredients became difficult to come by in the United States, Mexican drug cartels stepped in. Now fighting meth often means seizing large quantities of ready-made products in highway stops.
The cartels have inundated the market with so much pure, low-cost meth that dealers have more of it than they know what to do with. Under pressure from traffickers to unload large quantities, law enforcement officials say, dealers are even offering meth to customers on credit. In Portland, the drug has made inroads in black neighborhoods, something experienced narcotics investigators say was unheard-of five years ago.