In recent years, narcotics agents have succeeded in breaking up meth-cooking groups in the county, notably through Operation Triple Neck in 1989. Since then the Mexican drug cartels have largely supplemented domestic production. One factor favoring the Mexican gang is that ephedrine (a key ingredient in the manufacturing process) is not regulated in Mexico. Another is that these groups are already familiar with illicit trade routes. Adding methamphetamine to their operations was a cinch.
The report also says that local meth dealers are harder to catch than, say, crack dealers. "Typically, Mexican labs are larger and more secure than their U.S. counterparts and produce greater quantities of the drug," says Pennell.
On the other hand, the ability to cook small amounts in small places has its advantages. "Labs in the United States are often set up in houses, motels, trailers, public-storage lockers, and vans."
Often these labs produce meth on an irregular basis and move frequently to avoid detection, Pennell says. And meth users and dealers are often difficult to detect because unlike other drug buyers and sellers, they usually know each other and don't do business on the street.
The "Nazi" way of preparing meth has also made it difficult for law enforcement to detect labs. " 'Nazi method,' or 'dry cook,' uses ephedrine or pseudoephedrine," says the report, "sodium or lithium, and anhydrous ammonia. It is growing in popularity because it is quick and inexpensive, requires little setup time or equipment, and produces a high yield of the drug. 104 of the labs seized in 1996 used this method, up from 5 labs in 1995."
But that figure doesn't reflect the extent of the kitchen operations going on in San Diego, adds Pennell. Meth made the "Nazi" method (named for the way Nazi military cooks are said to have created meth to bolster their soldiers' courage) is hard to find, mainly because it gives off none of the typical "baby-diaper urine" smell associated with traditional cooking vapors. You can't smell dry batches, even nearby.
Yet for all the federal alarm bells, meth is definitely a West Coast thing, according to Washington, D.C.-based Jack Riley, in charge of the 35-city ADAM program. "I don't think meth will inevitably creep eastwards," he says. "We don't see meth use east of the Mississippi among the arrested population. In Atlanta last year, we got one meth-positive [arrest] for the entire year. We're getting nothing east of Omaha and Des Moines. Chicago, too, [shows] nothing significant."
Does Riley believe enterprising San Diegans may be able to penetrate East Coast cities? "Well, meth is cheaper than cocaine and [its effect] lasts longer. In our data set we asked people if they had ever used cocaine, and if they did, which did they prefer? We had a lot of folks who said they switched to meth because it's cheaper, the high is better, and the high lasts longer. But [creating a market for meth in] East Coast cities where cocaine is very entrenched with the drug-using population? Meth may never hit New York. It may never be an issue."
"Although this study includes only arrestees in five western cities," says her report, "the Federal Government has acknowledged the spread of meth in other areas of the country and responded by appropriating funds to address meth use before it becomes a national epidemic."
"There has not been a lot of federal attention on meth until recently," Pennell says. That's wrong, she believes, because meth is worse than even heroin. "You might be able to [maintain a life] with heroin. If you're a long-term heroin user, use once a week, maybe even once a day, people still manage to have families. They're able to get on. But that is not the case with chronic meth users. They tend to use more and more and more. Their teeth fall out. Their brain chemistry gets twisted, and their nerve endings die because not enough oxygen is getting to them."
So is San Diego's effort paying off? No, says Mike Kelly of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. But at least the big-time meth manufacturers have been pushed out of town. A sign that makers are under stress here comes from DEA street samples. Four years ago they typically tested 95 to 97 percent pure. Kelly says today the purity's down to 15-25 percent. The price has gone up too, from $4500 a 500-gram bag (about one pound) to $7000.
But Kelly doesn't believe all SANDAG's conclusions are reliable. Kelly also disagrees "100 percent" with SANDAG's suggestion that violence and meth use may not be linked.
"In my 31 years of working narcotic enforcement," he says. "I've arrested heroin addicts, marijuana users, cocaine users, and meth users. And the meth users are always more violent. You get a guy who's on a three- or four-day run, and you've got to arrest him; it's not fun. I don't have the statistical information SANDAG does. I've just had a few bloody noses."