Utah’s Meth Labs Are Disappearing, But Meth Abuse Isn’t

Meth and meth charges do not discriminate.  Meth affects users from all age groups, races, economic backgrounds, and lifestyles.  Nonetheless, just as crack was associated with the urban poor of the inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s, today meth has become inextricably linked to the rural poor of America’s farmlands.  In particular, Utah.  Yet a strange trend has been developing over the past 10 years: Utah’s meth labs are disappearing, but meth abuse isn’t.  So what’s driving so much meth abuse in Utah?  Why hasn’t the drug vanished with the closures of the clandestine labs that produce it?

Drug Pipe

Utah: 2 Meth Lab Incidents; Missouri: More Than 1,800

A quick perusal through the news on the web returns a long list of Utah meth stories.  “Utah man arrested in Superman shirt for meth possession,” one headline reads.  “Suspicious activity leads to meth lab find,” states another.  “More than 17 pounds of meth seized in Park City drug bust,” says a third.

Most telling (and surreal) of all is the website of a home inspection company called Watch Dogs Home Inspectors.  “Are you unknowingly purchasing a home contaminated with methamphetamine and putting your family’s health at risk?” the site asks its visitors.  “Utah is one of the national leaders per capita in meth production and use,” it goes on to add, in case you weren’t quite alarmed enough.  Is testing for meth residue standard procedure for home inspectors in Rhode Island?

Interestingly, Utah actually ranks low in terms of meth lab distribution.  According to data culled from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) and the National Security System (NSS), as of January 2013 there were only two meth lab incidents in Utah.  That’s right: two. This surprising data is supported by the DEA, which also reports two Utah meth lab incidents for the 2012 calendar year… out of a grand total of 11,210 incidents nationwide.

In Tennessee, there were more than 1,500 incidents.  In Missouri, more than 1,800.  Yet it isn’t Tennessee or Missouri which have earned extensive media coverage and a sordid reputation as hotbeds for meth production and distribution.  It’s Utah, Montana, Oregon, Nevada — none of which, according to EPIC and the NSS, had more than 10 documented meth lab incidents in 2012.

If the number of known meth labs in Utah is virtually nonexistent by comparison to the tally for most other states, why is meth such a problem in Utah?  Is it a problem?  Or have we been fooled by sensational hype?

A police officer watching traffic

“The Meth Epidemic is Still Huge.”

The shocking discrepancy between Utah’s meth labs and Utah’s meth usage has been acknowledged, if not by the news media, then by organizations committed to minimizing drug crime and meth-related deaths and injuries.  According to Scott Burns, the Deputy Director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “The days of an epidemic of meth labs are over.”  Perhaps Burns is correct: in 1999, there were 272 meth lab busts in the state of Utah.  In 2007, there were three.  Now, it’s been whittled down to two.  Maybe in five years it will be zero.

But while the prevalence of meth labs in Utah has seen a sharp decline since peak production furor in the 1990s and early 2000s, the problem of actual meth usage continues to spread.  After all, meth can always be imported — and members of law enforcement say that most of it is imported. According to Lieutenant Richard Ferguson of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force, a staggering 95% of meth in the United States is brought in by Mexican drug cartels.  Some of the major roadways through Utah, such as Interstates 70 and 80, act like veins and arteries carrying meth throughout the state.

“The meth epidemic is still huge,” says Provo Police Sergeant Gary Powell.

While meth labs may be scarce in the Beehive State, meth users seem to be commonplace.  Quest Diagnostics’ yearly report on drug use in the workforce shows that in 2010, Utah ranked number seven in the country for meth use, with urine samples testing positive for meth at a rate 120% higher than the national average.  

According to the Utah Drug Control Update from the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the same agency whose Deputy Director proclaimed the end of the meth lab era — not only is the number of Utah drug-induced deaths higher than the national average, it was nearly twice as high at 20.6 per 100,000, compared with 12.7 per 100,000 for the country.  In 2007 — a year with only three meth lab incidents — more Utahans were killed by drug abuse than by car accidents. Methamphetamine and stimulant drugs led to nearly 2,000 drug abuse treatment episodes in Utah, while heroin led to just over 1,500, and cocaine led to about 700.

Heroin consignments found of drug control employees

What’s Causing the “Meth Epidemic” in Utah?

There’s little doubt that meth use in Utah is a serious problem.  But why has Utah fallen victim to what Gary Powell calls an “epidemic”?  Why hasn’t meth taken root everywhere?  Of course, meth exists everywhere — but why so much of it here, of all places?

Meth’s famously low cost of production seems to be the most obvious factor.  The logic of thrift is undeniable: why go into debt over cocaine when you can make a cheap, DIY narcotic that requires the bare minimum of equipment?  But while meth may be inexpensive to produce in Utah, it’s inexpensive to produce everywhere else, too.  Wherever you live, the ingredients you need remain the same.

Could it be that residents of Utah just don’t have the cash to spring for costlier vices?  Possibly — but according to U.S. Census data, in 2011, Utah ranked number 11 in America for highest median household income.  In 2011, Utah’s median household income was a healthy $55,869. Mississippi was in last place with an average of $36,919, yet Mississippi doesn’t share Utah’s reputation for rampant meth abuse.  Even allowing that the median household income doesn’t necessarily reflect the less affluent enclaves of rural Utah, poverty alone just isn’t enough to explain the situation away.  If meth were simply a direct result of poverty, countries with low GDPs like Bhutan and Liberia would be the notorious meth centers of the world.  Poverty may be part of the story, but there has to be more.

The Utah Department of Public Safety may have the missing piece.  According to the Department:

“Utah, for many years, was one of three states which allowed the unrestricted sales of precursor chemicals.  Utah, as a result, became a source state for chemicals…”

While laws may have finally put the brakes on the sale of precursor chemicals (which include pseudoephedrine, red phosphorous, and anhydrous ammonia), perhaps it’s a matter of too little, too late.  Pseudoephedrine in particular is easily accessible, considering it’s used as an ingredient in many over-the-counter medications for the common cold.  Law enforcement agencies are aware of this fact, and consequently keep close tabs on suspiciously large or frequent purchases of medicines containing pseudoephedrine — but where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Resourceful meth addicts and distributors have perfected the technique of “smurfing” (hopping from pharmacy to pharmacy), and where smurfing fails, shoplifting and theft may be used as desperate last resorts.

According to thousands of users, ex-users, counselors, police officers, doctors, and chemists, meth is one of the most addictive drugs on the black market today.  Meth is comparatively easy to afford, easy to make, and easy to access.  While the state’s labs have all but vanished, the drug itself refuses to relinquish its tight grip around Utah’s throat.  Until it does, there will be more robberies, more arrests, and more fatalities.

If you or someone you love is facing allegations of meth possession, manufacture, or distribution, you could be facing extremely serious penalties if you are convicted.  Call Darwin Overson today at (801) 758-2287, or contact our law offices online.  Your first consultation is free of charge.