The last multimedia story in a series exploring the issue of meth in the Southwest.
LAS VEGAS -- Methamphetamine is the number one drug problem in Southern Nevada and much of the Southwest. And it’s been that way for the last decade. To combat the scourge, policy makers have made it harder to buy the ingredients to manufacture the highly addictive drug. But it hasn't done much good: meth trafficking organizations constantly manage to adapt.
“There is no scarcity of meth,” said Kent Bitsko, director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force in Southern Nevada. “None of the dealers are having any problems getting it.”
As domestic meth production fell in this country in the mid 2000s, meth smuggled in from Mexico filled the void. Meth seizures at the border hit record levels in 2010 and continue to rise.
Earlier this week, a federal drug taskforce found 208 pounds of methamphetamine stashed in five Las Vegas houses. They believe the drugs were smuggled from Mexico.
“As long as there is a market, they are going to find a way to get the dope here,” Bitsko said.
For seven years, Michael Razzano was part of that market. He believes he became hooked the first time he tried meth in 2004. At the time, he was a waiter at the Rio Suites and Hotel and would hit up bars and clubs with his co-workers after work.
“I could drink and drink, and gamble and gamble, and dance and dance and smoke and smoke,” said the lanky 38-year old. “I could show up to work in the beginning and work like superman because that was how it made me feel.”
While users like Razzano may have consistently visited the same Las Vegas dealers to buy meth, the way the drug was made and where it came from was constantly shifting.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, some methamphetamine was made locally in Las Vegas. Local production hit a peak in 1999 when state law enforcement discovered more than 360 labs here.
When law enforcement officers served search warrants on five Las Vegas homes July 12, the result was the largest meth seizure in Nevada state history.
Officers found 208 pounds of meth and four pounds of heroin. The drugs are worth an estimated $5.7 million on the streets.
Law enforcement officials said the operation disrupted a Mexican drug trafficking organization operating in Las Vegas.
Drug seizures of this magnitude are more likely to occur near the border. But large busts in the interior of the U.S. are becoming increasingly common, according to Paul Rozario, the head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Las Vegas.
"You are finding more and more that these drug trafficking organizations are pushing inland," Rozario said.
In addition to the drugs, officers seized six guns, $280,000 in cash and nine cars. Several of the confiscated cars were outfitted with hidden compartments to hide drugs. The law enforcement operation was staffed by a mix of local and federal agencies that make up the Southern Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.
Authorities said most of the nine people arrested so far are Mexican nationals who are in the country illegally.
"This organization, is believed to be responsible for bringing in huge amounts of meth and drugs in the Las Vegas valley each month," Rozario said. "Enough meth to supply thousands of people with this highly addictive and dangerous drug."
Rozario believes the meth was smuggled in from Mexico and that 75 percent of it was destined for the Las Vegas market.
“Law enforcement was responding to about a lab a day on average,” Bitsko said.
But these days, meth labs are not so common.
“We've only had one or two in 2011,” the director said. “We’re doing well. We only had six total last year. So we’re staying on the right track.”
That dramatic drop is the result of state and federal policies that now make it harder for meth cookers to get the precursor chemicals needed to make the drug – especially pseudoephedrine – found in certain cold and allergy medications.
First, Canada tightened up on its exports of bulk pseudoephedrine to the U.S. Then, in 2006, after many states passed laws limiting how much pseudoephedrine products customers could buy from pharmacies, the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act put the policy into effect on a national level.
But shutting down one avenue for making meth seems to open the door for another. Soon, drug traffickers from Mexico stepped in to meet the demand.
“Mexican cartels are definitely increasing their production,” said John Farmer, a Drug Enforcement Administration analyst in Washington DC. “Obviously there must be demand here for them to try and bring the methamphetamine into the country.”
Meth seizures at the border jumped 270 percent over the last decade, according to DEA statistics. There was a brief lull in Mexican meth exports when pseudoephedrine became scarcer there in 2007. Then the Mexican government completely banned the chemical in 2009.
But meth makers adapted again to make the drug without pseudoephedrine. Now a DEA analysis shows that 77 percent of the meth coming across the border is made with a substitute industrial chemical, phenyl-2-propanone. It’s known as the “P2P” method.
Still, the new method isn’t perfect. Users say the P2P meth isn't as good
“So you may get a strong batch here, and not strong there,” Razzano said. “You’ve got people swinging from the trees one night, and not high the next.” Law enforcement officials said meth makers are already trying new alternatives. The latest is using rings of people to buy up pseudoephedrine to fuel super labs on this side of the border.
Razzano’s expensive drug habit ultimately drove him to homelessness. Finally, this spring, he decided to quit. He’s now trying to stay clean and wants to spread the word to young people to stay away from meth.
But his experience with the drug tells him there’s little policy makers can do to put a real dent in this business.
“Unfortunately I think they will always find a way,” he said. “That is the ugly part of addiction, disease and that business. So the answer is yes, they'll always find a way.”