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Will Meth Overtake Cocaine on the Southwest Border?

A 15-ton meth seizure in Mexico from 2012 A 15-ton meth seizure in Mexico from 2012

In recent years, the United States Border Patrol has seen methamphetamine seizures increase and cocaine seizures decrease as Mexican cartels flood the US market with cheap, powerful versions of the drug, raising the question of whether methamphetamine could soon surpass cocaine as the most important drug import along the southwest border. 

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US Border Patrol seizure statistics for the 2012 fiscal year reveal that 3,430 pounds of methamphetamine were seized along the US-Mexico border last year. This represents a near doubling from the previous year, when 1,838 pounds were seized.

meth final 1In contrast, cocaine seizures fell significantly. In the 2012 fiscal year, 5,992 pounds of cocaine were seized by the Border Patrol, compared to 8,763 pounds in 2011. 

The number of seizure incidents (as opposed to the amount of drugs seized) of methamphetamine actually surpassed that of cocaine in 2012: there were 562 seizures of methamphetamine last year, compared to 457 of cocaine.

The Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, now controls the vast majority of the methamphetamine production and trafficking, having displaced the splintered Familia Michoacana.  As EFE recently reported, the Sinaloa Cartel dominates not only the methamphetamine market in the US, but also in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

meth final 2The Border Patrol's numbers seem to suggest that methamphetamine may be beginning to overtake cocaine on the southwest border. However, determining trends in the amount of drugs seized is made difficult by the lack of complete seizure data. Until 2012, the US Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) collected aggregated drug seizure data for the Southwest Border Area, which included seizures made by federal, state, and local law enforcement officers at and between US points of entry along the US-Mexico border and within 150 miles of the border.

In June 2012, however, the NDIC was shut down due to budget issues after Congress voted to defund it. Some of the NDIC's responsibilities will now pass to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), but for now, there is no available synthesized local, state, and federal drug seizure data. 

Aggregated but older data from the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, the last to be published, shows the same trend as the Border Patrol's numbers, although as of 2010, methamphetamine was still far away from overtaking cocaine in terms of amount seized. Total methamphetamine seizures, including seizures made by local, state, and federal law enforcement, increased from a low of 4,691 pounds in 2007 to 9,890 in 2010, while total cocaine seizures dropped from 60,320 pounds in 2006 to 39,308 in 2010. According to DEA records reviewed by the Associated Press, methamphetamine seizures jumped to more than 16,000 pounds in 2011.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are several potential reasons behind the increase in methamphetamine seizures observed since 2007.

1.) Mexican cartels have found ways to get around legal obstacles to obtaining precursor chemicals. In 2006, Mexico implemented stricter control of precursor chemicals and in 2008 completely banned the sale of pseudephedrine, disrupting the cartels' supply chain and resulting in a drop in Mexican methamphetamine production.

By 2008, however, Mexican criminal organizations adapted by switching to production methods that did not rely on ephedrine, such as the phenyl-2-propanone methamphetamineod. They also  increased production and the smuggling of precursor chemicals from Central America, particularly Guatemala and Honduras. 

2.) Methamphetamine is relatively cheap and easy to manufacture, compared to other drugs. Because methamphetamine can be cheaply manufactured within Mexico, producing and transporting it across the border presents less of a risk than trafficking cocaine, which has to be brought up from the Andes and thus necessitates a much longer supply chain. As a Texas police official told The Texas Tribune, methamphetamine can also be produced year-round, unlike marijuana or opium. 

3.) Mexican cartels are filling the void after methamphetamine production dropped in the US. In recent years, many states in the United States have passed stricter control laws on precursor chemicals such as pseudephedrine. Tougher laws, coupled with the fact that recently many law enforcement agencies have made methamphetamine a higher priority, led to lower US production, which prompted Mexican cartels to move in.

While US methamphetamine labs are on the rise in small and mid-sized urban centers, US methamphetamine production is often concentrated in rural areas, and labs are limited to making small batches due to crackdowns by law enforcement. Mexican methamphetamine, on the other hand, is mass-produced, and has flooded larger suburban and urban markets, such as Dallas and Chicago, in recent months.

What is perhaps scariest for law enforcement is that Mexican methamphetamine is both cheaper and more potent. According to the University of Texas at Austin Addiction Research Institute's 2012 US Trends Update, data from the DEA's System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence (STRIDE) shows that from July 2007 through June 2011, the price per gram of methamphetamine decreased 69 percent while purity increased 127 percent.

A DEA official told the Associated Press in 2012 that cutting the price and increasing the purity allows suppliers (in this case Mexican drug trafficking organizations) to lure in and then hook customers. And, as a 2011 Department of Justice-funded report on methamphetamine usage in New York City explained, the lower price, increased purity, and wider availability of methamphetamine in US markets thanks to Mexican cartels mean that methamphetamine use will likely rise once again over the next few years. 

This would reverse a positive trend of reduced methamphetamine use in the US. According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), past month methamphetamine users decreased from 731,000 in 2006 to 439,000 in 2011. In May 2012, US National Drug Control Policy Director R. Gil Kerlikowske told the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission that in the past five years, methamphetamine use had declined by 50 percent.

Since 2007, cocaine use has also fallen. According to NSDUH, cocaine use declined from 1 million current users in 2002 to 670,000 in 2011, and Kelikowske attested that cocaine use declined by 40 percent in the past five years. There are several possible explanations for this downward trend, although it is difficult to pinpoint just one. Drug officials have attributed the decrease in use to the diminished availability of cocaine in the US due to cartel in-fighting, effective counternarcotics measures.

Methamphetamine, however, appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

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