Meth Effect: Montana meth production shifts to industrial labs

Guns seized in Montana meth bust. (Augusta McDonnell)

Editor’s note: The flood of methamphetamines into Montana communities has left law enforcement, the courts and social services strained. Prosecutors report drug cases have clogged district courts. Child protection case numbers have soared as parents addicted to the drug neglect or abuse their children. Families of addicts report few options for helping their loved ones kick the substance. The Montana Meth Effect is an effort to tell the complex web of stories about communities coping with widespread drug use.

The report, produced by students at the University of Montana School of Journalism, works to put a face on the new meth user base and explain the effects of an uptick in amphetamine use across the state.  The staff is made up of audio, visual and web-focused students in a jointly convened class working to make audio stories consumable on social media. It is an experimental capstone class led by professors Jule and Lee Banville with support from the University of Montana Journalism School. Missoula Current will present the full report in installments over the coming days. You can also access the package online at metheffect.com.

It was a bust made to go viral.

Following a 2013 shooting between father and son, Walter White was arrested for meth distribution in Billings. White, who shares his name with the fictional meth dealer from the television program “Breaking Bad,” had been caught after the fight over a $10,000 drug-related debt, and was later sentenced to over 12 years in federal prison.

Police discovered over 32 pounds of meth at the scene of the father-son shootout, with one article calling the situation “Breaking Worse.”

The production and distribution of methamphetamine has undergone a seismic shift in Montana. It now shares more with the television drama than then name of a character. In the last five years, the production of meth has shifted from a primarily home-cooked drug to an international drug trafficking system that starts in huge labs in Mexico.

Once in the United States the drugs end up in major urban areas like Seattle, Denver and Phoenix. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the meth often changes hands to smaller street-level gangs that move the drug along major interstates like I-15 or I-90. Both those highways bring the drugs straight into Montana.

It’s a production and distribution system that is remarkably different than during the first wave of meth use more than a decade ago. It was the early 2000s when meth use within the state saw a noticeable spike. Produced primarily in makeshift home labs using ingredients like the antihistamine Sudafed, the drug swept through poor and rural communities, hitting young people particularly hard. By 2005, the government was pushed to take action, making the “Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005” part of the anti-terrorism PATRIOT Act that was signed into law by George W. Bush.

“The bill places limits on large-scale purchases of over-the-counter drugs that are used to manufacture meth. It requires stores to keep these ingredients behind the counter or in locked display cases,” said President Bush at the time. “The bill also increases penalties for smuggling and selling of meth. Our nation is committed to protecting our citizens and our young people from the scourge of methamphetamine.”

The new law put stricter national regulations on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, two ingredients essential for meth production that are commonly sold in pharmacies.

Joe Kirkland, the resident Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent for Montana said the new regulations choked off much of the supply of home-cooked meth, saying the amount of meth being produced in the state to “almost non-existent.”


DEA officials say that they can chemically trace meth in Montana back to major production facilities in Mexico. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

A Roaring Comeback

When the press showed up to a news conference in January 2017, law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s office were ready with the goods. On a series of tables spread out before them was the result of a nearly two- year investigation. Some 68 weapons and thousands of ammunition rounds littered the display. A stash of homemade grenades and a launcher drew lots of attention. There was also the thousands of dollars cash and pounds of meth.

Federal prosecutor Mike Cotter used the event to declare a major blow in the battle against the new meth.

“This operation put an end to organizations that were delivering dangerous drugs straight into our Montana communities,” Cotter told reporters. “Methamphetamine has a devastating ripple effect—it ruins lives, families and communities. I am proud of the hard work and long hours the members of this operation invested in these cases. Our state is a safer place as a result.”

The 8 people convicted in the conspiracy to traffic 11 pounds of meth throughout western Montana were a major catch for law enforcement, but are just one of the myriad groups helping move the drug around the state.

Although the 2005 regulations made a dent in home-cooked meth, there has been an explosion of meth-related activity in the state. According to the Department of Justice, from 2009 to 2015 drug-related arrests in Montana increased 62 percent and currently account for 18 percent of all arrests. Drug charges are now the leading categories for both misdemeanor and felony arrests. Fifty three percent of these cases were meth-related, and all 11 drug task forces located within the state report that methamphetamine is what they most frequently encounter.

A pound-and-a-half of meth and cash taken in an FBI arrest. (FBI)

Missoula police department spokesman Travis Welsh said that meth “appears in reports at least once a day.”

With the decline of home meth labs, a void opened in the drug market. The supply was quickly provided by drug producers in Mexico, who now almost exclusively control the supply of meth in the state, according to Kirkland.

The scope of the trafficking into the state is demonstrated by the lack of Montana meth labs. When a lab is found, the DEA is alerted so they can begin the cleanup for the area. Kirkland says that since October there have only been two labs reported within the entire state.

“There’s really no reason for people to make their own when they can get 99 percent pure meth pretty easily,” he said.

Once the meth is produced in Mexico, it is then transported across the border through any number of ways. Meth has been found hidden in tortillas, shipments of jalapeños and cucumbers, and cheese wheels while being smuggled across the border.

“It gets shipped by trucks, buses, rental cars, vehicles. It’s pretty frequent to have people backpack the stuff north of the line,” Kirkland said. He added that meth has even been found in trucks hidden among produce being shipped. According to Eric Sell of the Montana Department of Justice, there was an incident where a flatbed truck was found with a bed that was modified to raise up, revealing a secret compartment that contained dozens of pounds of meth.

From the border the drugs are then generally transported to large metropolitan areas, such as Tucson, Los Angeles and Denver. Many of the organizations have “stash houses” in these areas to store the meth until it is sold to distributors, who then disseminate the meth throughout the country.

The large-scale production of meth in Mexico has shifted the economic incentive from production to distribution. According to the DEA a pound of meth can be bought in Orange County, California for around $3,000 and then resold in Montana for $1800 to $2000 per ounce – leaving the trafficker with almost $29,000 in profit.

Montana is not alone in its meth problem. Washington and California have become key points in meth trafficking routes, as well as the Bakken oil field in North Dakota, according to Sell. Still, Kirkland says that for a state that has as small of a population as Montana, the rate of meth-related activity is alarming.

The Department of Justice and the DEA are currently working with local law enforcement officers and other federal agencies to stop the problem by stopping meth before it gets to street-level distributors and users.

“If you’re able to pick up shipments on the interstate before they get into the communities… you’re going to stop the user from getting that,” Sell said.

Welch says that arrests in these cases usually start with small street-level users, usually involving very small amounts of the drug. From there, the investigation goes up through local dealers to low-level suppliers.

“You kind of follow the product backwards,” Welch said. “These investigations can grow pretty large.”

Drug task forces comprised of investigators from various agencies are put together to pursue the case. Kirkland says that they aim to stop the dissemination of the drug and trace its origins as far as possible.

The state and federal agencies both hope for more successes like those announced in January.

“The main goal is to stop the spread of this disease from destroying people’s lives and destroying people themselves,” said Welch. ■

Anna was born and raised in Yellowstone National Park. A 2017 graduate of the University of Montana journalism school, she worked for the Montana Kaimin, participated in the Global Leadership Initiative and was a member of the Davidson Honors College during her time in Missoula.