CADILLAC — Area law enforcement noticed something was different about the methamphetamine they were seizing on the streets.
Osceola County Prosecuting Attorney Anthony Badovinac noticed it, as did Wexford County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Elmore and Traverse Narcotics Team Detective Lt. Dan King.
Instead of the “one-pot” meth that users have been cooking up for years in plastic bottles using ingredients from convenience stores, recent busts have uncovered an even more insidious product — crystal meth.
Crystal meth is distinct from "one-pot" meth in several ways.
Elmore describes the difference this way: “One-pot meth typically involves a couple people gathering the ingredients locally. Those (ingredients) include drain cleaner, pseudoephedrine, tree fertilizer spikes or ice packs, lye, lithium strips from batteries, and other items. They make it and use it. Crystal meth usually involves more of what the average person may expect. It’s made in large batches by those looking to deal and make money. It looks like glass.”
Hence the classic street name for meth — glass.
Elmore said he learned about the presence of crystal meth in the police report of a recent bust in Wexford County.
Dan King, with TNT, said the presence of crystal meth is something he's suspected for a little while, but at this point, he has little physical evidence to support his hunch.
“It’s just a gut feeling,” King said. “We’re waiting on results (from the lab) before we know for sure.”
The potential discovery of crystal meth in the region coincides with a noticeable decline in the production of one-pot meth, King said.
So, why are more people buying crystal meth as opposed to making their own?
One reason may be an ingredients shortage.
In recent years, pharmacies have taken steps to crack down on the purchase of meth’s main ingredient, pseudoephedrine.
In Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola and Lake counties, the percentage of blocked pseudoephedrine sales compared to purchases in 2016 was quite high, ranging from 3.1 to 10.2 percent of all transactions being cancelled due to suspicions the buyer was using the drug to make meth, according to a report presented to the state Legislature by the SMP Methamphetamine Investigation Team and Michigan Intelligence Operations Center.
Lake County had the highest percentage of blocked transactions in the state, at 10.2 percent.
The report notes that while the sale of pseudoephedrine has steadily declined since 2014, the number of blocks has steadily increased, meaning less of the substance in the hands of meth cooks.
Despite the challenges, “methamphetamine cooks still diversify their efforts to obtain the drug by importing from outside sources due to law enforcement pressure,” the report concludes.
Lori Dougovito, public affairs representative for the Michigan State Police, confirmed a statewide “increase in the import of crystal meth and a decrease in the one-pot production method.”
Lawrence Payne, spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, said reports across the country paint a similar picture to what is occurring in Michigan, with less one-pot meth production and more crystal on the streets.
Payne said not only is crystal meth cheaper than one-pot meth, it is far purer.
“It’s made in a laboratory by legitimate chemists,” Payne said. “It is more potent and more addictive. It’s every bit the sophisticated, high-level operation you’d see in a show like ‘Breaking Bad.’”
In referencing “Breaking Bad,” Payne was referring to a television show that featured a high school chemistry teacher who decides to cook meth after finding out he has terminal cancer in order to make some money for his family.
Unlike the fictional TV series, however, the meth that's circulating throughout the U.S. isn’t being produced domestically — it’s coming from the Mexican drug cartels.
According to the 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment report recently unclassified by the DEA, most of the meth seized in the U.S. is produced in “super labs” in Mexico and distributed to gangs in major cities by various cartel groups.
In Michigan, the most prolific Mexican cartel group is the Sinaloa Cartel, which has bases of distribution out of Saginaw and Detroit.
Illicit drugs distributed by the Sinaloa Cartel are primarily smuggled into the United States through crossing points located along Mexico’s border with California, Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas.
Payne said reports from the El Paso Intelligence Center indicate the amount of meth seized by the DEA during border searches has increased steadily, from 12,000 kilograms in 2012 to 23,000 kilograms in 2017.
While these statistics don’t tell the full picture of how much of the drugs actually reach the streets, Payne said it gives one a general idea.
According to the report, " ... continued production of large kilogram quantities of low-cost, high-purity methamphetamine indicates an oversupply of methamphetamine in Mexico. Due to this consistently high production, methamphetamine prices in the United States remain at record lows and purity remains at record highs.”
The DEA report concludes that the presence of highly potent crystal meth isn’t going away anytime soon.
“Methamphetamine seizures along the (border) will likely increase as demand in the United States remains high,” the report states. “Domestic production will likely continue to decline as methamphetamine produced in Mexico continues to be a low-cost, high-purity, high-potency alternative.”
According to the DEA laboratory system, domestic methamphetamine purchases analyzed from January 2011 through September 2016 indicate the price per pure gram of methamphetamine decreased 41 percent from $98 to $58 while the purity increased 9.4 percent from 85.5 percent to 93.5 percent.