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Illinois Issues: Focus on Heroin Leaves Little Attention on Meth

Illinois State Police

The state's heroin crisis has captured headlines and the attention of lawmakers. But in the past few years, the number of methamphetamine lab busts has crept back up, and law enforcement officials say the drug is also coming into the state from Mexico. 

Illinois lawmakers are trying to win the battle on the streets of two very potent, addictive and cheap drugs. In some Illinois communities the drug is methamphetamine; in some the drug is heroin. In many it’s both.

Heroin use has been dubbed a crisis in the state by Illinois lawmakers — and rightly so, according to the data. Nationwide, heroin overdose deaths doubled from 2010 to 2012. Heroin caused 633 overdose deaths in Illinois in 2015.

But there was a time, in the mid 2000s, when meth use was labeled as an epidemic.  Newsweek dubbed meth “America’s most dangerous drug” in 2005. That same year, Illinois had its highest recorded number of meth lab busts, more than 900. But since that time, concerns over heroin and opioid use have eclipsed meth in the headlines and in the public policy realm. Legislators and experts point to several possible reasons for this shift, including the deadliness of heroin, differences in the populations using each drug and the — possibly inaccurate — perception that the state’s meth problem has been tamped down by laws limiting access to a key ingredient used to make it.

“While, by and large, nationally the opioid/heroin crisis has consumed the public at this point, I have heard many folks talk about the fact that methamphetamine hasn't gone away,” says Sara Moscato Howe, chief executive officer of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association.

Meth is unique from other drugs because it cannot be grown; it has to be chemically synthesized. It can be synthesized in many ways, but all of these methods require the use of pseudoephedrine, a chemical found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. Illinois, like many other states that have faced widespread meth use, has long had laws in place to try and combat meth production by limiting access to pseudoephedrine.

The Methamphetamine Precursor Control Act (MPCA) went into effect in 2006 and limited the amount of cold or allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine one person could buy to 7.5 grams a month. Under the law, customers must be 18 to purchase the pills. Sales also go through a 32-state database called the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx).  The system can block sales if customers try to surpass the legal limit or have prior meth convictions.

Credit Illinois State Police
Annual numbers for meth lab seizures in Illinois as documented by the state police

In the first quarter of 2016, the NPLEx system in Illinois helped block the sale of 62,478 grams of pseudoephedrine in Illinois. In 2015, the system stopped 253,539 grams of pseudoephedrine from being sold in the state. “NPLEx helps local law enforcement to monitor and access purchases,” says Mike Tringale, a spokesman at the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The association is a trade group for over-the-counter medicines and supplements. The six major manufacturers of pseudoephedrine products cover the cost of the program.

According to numbers from the Illinois State Police, the first measurable drop in meth lab seizures in the state followed implementation of the law. By 2008, there were fewer than 400 lab seizures, the lowest point since 2000. But, that number began to gradually climb starting the next year and was back up to nearly 800 by 2012. Last year, the state had 723 meth lab seizures, which means it was ranked sixth for lab busts among the states.

Law enforcement officers say meth cooks have found ways around the restrictions. One tactic is “smurfing,” which is a slang term for sending several people to buy the cold medicine to obtain enough to manufacture.  Some meth cooks have also changed to a manufacturing method called “shake and bake.” This method can be accomplished with some chemicals, a 2-liter soda bottle and most importantly, considerably less pseudoephedrine than any other previous cooking method.

Credit Illinois State Police
Bottles used for the "shake-and-bake" process of cooking meth

“Think of cooking meth as baking a cake. We took the flour out of their cake, but then the meth cooks found a way to re-bake the cake a different way,” says Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion. Bradley sponsored the MPCA. “So, we have to approach this meth problem again, and the time to do so is now.”

While the number of meth lab seizures has crept back up in the past few years, it still remains below the peak in the mid-2000s. This decline could be linked to the law limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can purchase, but a drop in the number of meth lab busts doesn’t equal a problem solved. Kathleen Kane-Willis, the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, says the restrictions caused unintended consequences by opening a market for meth trafficked by the Mexican cartels.

The influx of meth from cartels could actually mean sales of the drug have increased in some parts of the state.  An Illinois state police special agent says that in the past the task force would see 2 to 3 grams of meth during a bust, and it was very rare to find anyone selling any meth. (Illinois Issues is not using the agent’s name at his request to protect his identity for undercover work.) He says that amount “was usually all a mom-and-pop lab could produce, so meth users kept the product for themselves . . . now we are seeing pounds of meth, and meth is very easy to purchase.” He says Mexican cartels have stepped in and filled the void in supply caused by fewer local. “We are not witnessing any drop in actual meth usage out on the streets, just fewer labs.”

Springfield Chief Deputy Daniel Mounce says that the intelligence his department gathers indicates Mexican meth is making its way to Illinois. Morgan County Sheriff Randy Duvendack says that this meth is referred to as “ice” because it is pure, potent and clear like a shard of glass. “Just a few weeks ago, Pike County made an arrest that led to the seizure of a large amount of this Mexican ice,” he says.  This arrest resulted in the seizure of $14,000 worth of meth.

Still, some lawmakers think more could be done to further curb homegrown meth production. In 2014, Democratic Sen. David Koehler from Peoria introduced a bill that would require a prescription to buy products containing pseudoephedrine. Such medicines were prescription drugs prior to 1976, when the pills began to be sold over the counter. The legislation mirrored laws in Mississippi and Oregon. But Koehler says he struggled to find support among lawmakers representing urban areas. “Meth is a rural drug. Little support comes from urban areas where it’s not made and used. You see it in Pekin, not in Peoria. Politically, Chicago’s a problem. This bill got virtually no support there,” he says. The measure went nowhere and died when the legislative session ended in 2015.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight other states have also tried and failed to pass legislation to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

Credit Illinois State Police
Items found in a meth lab seized by police

Manufacturers of these medicines are pushing back against such proposals. Those representing them argue that NPLEx has choked off the supply of ingredients for Americans labs, and that meth coming into the country from Mexico is the bigger problem. “Meth lab seizures do not correlate with meth demand and usage,” Tringale says. The vast majority of the meth in this country, he says, is “coming across the border and is extremely cheap.”

In 2015, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America announced the results of a five-state poll, which included Illinois. The survey questioned 2,027 users of over-the-counter medicine to treat asthma, allergies and colds. The results from Illinois showed that 99 percent of respondents purchase these medicines, and 96 percent want access to them medicines without a prescription. “We want a solution to the meth problem, but we don’t want to infringe on law abiding citizens,” Tringale says. “We feel the laws are solid where they are.”

Carlos Gutierrez, senior director of state government affairs for the Department of Consumer Healthcare Products Association, says: “Oregon has had a prescription law since 2006, yet Oregon leads the nation in meth use. It is clear that making access by prescription only is not a workable solution.”

A recent report from the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program designated meth as the biggest drug threat to the state, but that threat was not attributed to homegrown labs. Since the state first started tightening restrictions on cold and allergy medicine sales, the number of meth lab busts went from more than 400 a year down to nine in 2013, the most recent year data was available.

The Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report cited trafficking from Mexico as the biggest source for meth in Oregon and also noted that some production of meth has moved to other states that don’t require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. While making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug has clearly not solved Oregon’s meth problem, supporters of the move say the drastic drop in the number of meth labs in the state does have benefits, such as reducing the public safety risk of a lab explosion, and cutting back on the environmental hazards labs present and the cost of cleaning them up. It also means fewer children in the state are exposed to the toxic environment of living in a meth lab.

Koehler says he hasn’t introduced legislation this session to tighten access to pseudoephedrine. He says he hasn’t seen a consensus among the law enforcement representatives about making pseudoephedrine prescription only, and he says heroin currently has the attention of legislators. “These drugs effect two different populations,” he says. “Meth is a rural drug and heroin is not only urban but also specifically suburban. When legislators first started working on meth, we had poor communities in crisis, but now heroin has wealthier communities in crisis. Wealthier communities usually get more attention. Heroin is getting more attention by lawmakers because of the number of [overdose] deaths and the higher-income communities you find it in.”

Credit Illinois State Police
An example of a type of meth that is sometimes referred to as "ice"

Heroin has spread throughout the state, but its impact has been felt especially hard in the Chicago suburbs. According to statistics compiled by U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s office, heroin killed nearly 400 people just in the collar counties surrounding Cook County between 2012 and 2014.

Meth users seldom overdose but heroin fatality numbers like those in the collar counties have helped a spark legislative movement from more punitive laws toward a new focus on drug prevention and drug treatment. In September of 2015, the Heroin Crisis Act passed through both chambers of the General Assembly with broad support. Lawmakers from both parties later voted to override changes Gov. Bruce Rauner made with his veto pen, and the Heroin Crisis Act became law.

While the focus of the law was on heroin, it could also help meth addicts. The law says that instead of probation, a first-time substance-abuse offender can go to drug court for closely monitored treatment and recovery from drugs.  The changes to drug court will also include meth offenders.

Lindsey has experience with both drugs. She has used them intravenously and says both heroin and meth are equally available in the state. (Illinois Issues is not using her last name at her request to protect her privacy.) Lindsey says she sometimes used meth along with Suboxone, a drug that is used to treat opioid addiction, to lessen her heroin withdrawal symptoms.   

While Lindsey says she knows both drugs were terrible for her health and her lifestyle, she thinks heroin was worse because of how incapacitating it was. “I was to the point where I literally couldn’t get out of bed to brush my teeth unless I had heroin in the morning. I would have it right next to my bed — everything right next to my bed — so the minute I woke up, I could do it,” she says. “I got to the point where I wouldn’t even shower.” She says if she had heroin, she didn’t want to shower for fear of dulling the high. If she didn’t have it, she was too sick from withdrawal to shower. Lindsey struggled with addiction for almost nine years and is now in recovery.

Despite Lindsey’s personal assessment of the two drugs, experts say there might be more hope for recovery for heroin addicts because treatment for opioid dependency has, so far, proven to be more effective. This may be due in part to the fact that there are some medications, such as Methadone and Suboxone, which can help with rehabilitation. The Heroin Crisis Act requires that Medicaid cover these, but Kane-Willis says it wouldn’t matter whether the law covered medicine-assisted treatment for meth because there are no effective medicines to help in treating meth addiction. 

Richard Rawson is a research professor at the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and an author of The Matrix Model, a prominent treatment approach for addiction to stimulants. He says treatment for meth doesn’t have the positive measurable results seen with heroin treatment. “You could invest huge amounts in meth treatment, but the outpatient relapse rates are very high. Keeping people in residential treatment is terribly expensive, and as soon as they walk out the door, the relapse rate is 70 percent in the first 90 days,” he says. “So the call to arms for treating meth users simply has fewer effective things we can do.”

Nevertheless, Kane-Willis and Howe, who are both focused on policy in Illinois, say that a key part of the solution is spending money on programs to prevent use and to treat dependency. Howe says that Illinois previously paid $7 million a year for drug prevention programs, but now spends nothing, leaving these programs only federal money. She says if the state wants to combat the spread of addictive drugs like meth and heroin, it must invest resources. She points to a pilot program created by the Heroin Crisis Act. It’s called the Heroin and Opioid Prevention program and is aimed at educating people about heroin and heroin overdose. According to Howe, there is also no money specifically appropriated to fund it.

But the lack of funding aside, Howe says the Heroin Crisis Act is the most progressive drug legislation in the country.  Some, like Bradley, say meth should have the same attention. “Are opioids worse than meth?” asks Rawson. “Is it worse to be hit by a bus or a truck? Meth destroys communities. Heroin kills people. When large numbers of kids, especially middle class kids start dying, it gets attention.”

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.