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Meth use is up in Sacramento, but cracking down is harder

Published: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 8:43 am

In the wake of another study indicating widespread meth use in Sacramento, Central Valley law enforcement officials say savvy meth traffickers have made it harder to crack down on the drug.

In recent years, policymakers in the United States and Mexico have passed laws to restrict the sale of chemicals commonly used to make meth. But levels of use have remained high.

A survey released in May by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that 40 percent of men arrested in Sacramento County last year had methamphetamine in their systems. While slightly down from 2011 levels, that figure was up 10 percentage points from 2009.

"This drug is so prevalent," said Sgt. Carlos Ponce of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. He said meth production has changed since the 1990s, when "superlabs" that could produce 10 to hundreds of pounds of meth in a single batch dotted the Central Valley.

Today, law enforcement officials say most of the meth trafficked in California isn't even made here.

"Eighty percent of the meth traffic in the U.S. is either made in Mexico or comes from Mexican organizations," said John Donnelly, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's office in Fresno. Other estimates are as high as 95 percent.

Donnelly said that due to Mexico's all-out ban on pseudoephedrine, a decongestant commonly used in meth production, Mexican cartels have reverted to a less-efficient method of production – one that does not rely on pseudoephedrine – that was once used by the biker gangs that controlled the meth trade until the 1980s. (In the United States, regulation of pseudoephedrine varies by state.)

Cartels, however, have improved on the bikers' methods, Donnelly said, by using a chemical called tartyric acid to increase the purity of their product.

Once it's made, law enforcement officials say most meth is smuggled across the border dissolved in liquid form.

"It started coming across like a year ago," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of a federal law enforcement coordination program called the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, in Sacramento. He said dissolved meth has been hidden in windshield wiper fluid reservoirs to avoid X-ray detection, and has recently turned up in tequila bottles and detergent jugs with factory seals on them.

Once it reaches the Central Valley, meth is extracted from the solution and crystallized at so-called "ice conversion labs."

"We're finding more conversion labs than the actual cooking of methamphetamine here," said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. Last October, a house in Fresno being used as an ice conversion lab exploded, damaging several nearby homes.

Another kind of meth lab that has steadily been on the rise in California is called the "one pot" or "shake-and-bake" method. It originated in the Southeast and the Midwest, and it is increasingly being used in California, according to Erasmo Carrizosa, an agent with the California Department of Justice.

The one-pot method yields grams or ounces of meth. It produces meth by mixing water, pseudoephedrine, lithium, Coleman stove fuel and other chemicals in a soda bottle, and it's extremely dangerous. One mistake, and the bottle can explode.

Traffickers are also becoming more discrete about hiding the signs of activity, said Ruzzamenti, with some operations burying the equipment they use to process meth.

Because so much meth production has moved to Mexico, statistics on the prevalence of meth can sometimes seem contradictory. Across California, statistics collected by the DEA show that meth lab discoveries – including dump sites and chemical equipment – have been on a long decline.

On the other hand, the total amount of meth seized across the country has skyrocketed in recent years, going from about 4,800 pounds in 2010 to over 8,500 pounds in 2012, and Central Valley officials say meth-related incidents are on the rise.

"In 2011, we had 30 events related to a meth lab. In 2012, that jumped to 47," said Jill Edwards, the program analyst for the Central Valley HIDTA.

Officials say the apparent increase in meth lab activity hasn't been a product of increased policing, but just the opposite.

Ruzzamenti said the law enforcement agencies he works with have been trying to make do with less.

Previously, "almost every single police department and every sheriff's department had a narcotics unit," he said. "Now I'd say that of all my sheriffs and police departments up and down the Valley, 75 percent of them don't have narcotics units. They can't dedicate the resources."

The Sacramento Police Department shuttered its narcotics division in 2011 because of budget cuts, and the state laid off most employees of the Bureau of Narcotics in 2011 as well.

But some agencies aren't feeling the squeeze. Sheriff Mims said Fresno County has been able to keep the pressure on meth operations and that state and federal assistance has helped.

"We get lots of good results, lots of prosecutions," Mims said. She says lab seizures are down in her county. But she cautioned that her department's success "might have pushed the lab production to other counties."

"The meth problem has not gone away," Ruzzamenti said. "There's no question about it."

80%: Percentage of meth originating from Mexico being trafficked in the U.S., according to John Donnelly, resident agent in charge at the DEA's Fresno field office.

Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.

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