2000 — the year in review:
With drugs, speed is the name of the game
Geographically as well as metaphorically, the Midwest found itself at the center of the nation’s drug war last year. Awash in methamphetamine made cheaply with household products and other easily obtained chemicals, law enforcement agencies in prairie towns and large cities alike were overwhelmed by the use and manufacture of speed.
Police in Tulsa, Okla., asked retailers to get identification from customers who purchase “unusually large amounts” of such products as coffee filters, fertilizer and automobile starting fluid. Officers would then visit the purchaser’s home and find out the intended use of the chemicals and report back to the store. By May of last year, the department had already handled 70 meth labs. Oklahoma was ranked third in the nation for such cases in 1999.
Arkansas drug treatment centers reported in February that they are bursting at the seams from the sharp increase in methamphetamine addicts seeking help. In 1999, some 1,925 were treated at drug-abuse facilities around the state — a 50-percent increase over 1998.
Some 239 convenience stores, gas stations, mini marts and neighborhood grocers were sent letters and given posters in July by the Omaha Police Department, asking retailers to limit sale of items used in the manufacture of meth. A similar program were launched in 2000 across South Dakota by Attorney General Mark Barnett.
A law making it a felony to steal, tamper with or improperly transport anhydrous ammonia went into effect in Minnesota in July, with maximum penalties of up to five years in prison. The chemical, a common fertilizer often left unattended in storage tanks on farm fields, is a key ingredient in the manufacture of meth. It can cause severe burns to the skin even in small amounts and can be fatal when inhaled. Contact with the eyes can cause blindness. The change in the law allows police to arrest and prosecute offenders caught with so much as a picnic cooler full of the substance without having to prove conspiracy to manufacture.
One of two forensic scientists for the Kansas Bureau of Investigations who works full-time on the problem of meth labs told a state legislative panel in August that the KBI’s evidence lab is overwhelmed by an increase in manufacturing busts. The scientist, Dwain Worley, reported nine-month delays in getting evidence tested and reports written. The lack of timely reports could help free a guilty person if a defense attorney waives his client’s right to a preliminary hearing, knowing the confiscated evidence is not likely to be tested within the 90 day window between arraignment and trial.
Farm-supply cooperatives and law enforcement in St. Charles County, Mo., worked hand in hand last year to thwart the theft of anhydrous ammonia. The St. Charles County Regional Drug Task force and the sheriff’s department set up night surveillance operations and the owners of some farming co-ops helped police by removing hoses to their ammonia tanks and installing lighting and cameras.
Arkansas State Police were relieved in April when an additional $10 million was poured into a national fund for the clean up of meth labs. The money had run dry in March, due to an effort to steer funding toward “hot spots” and a twofold increase in the number of meth labs seized by state police in 1999.
In addition to the explosive growth in the popularity of meth in 2000, a record-breaking seizure at the Los Angeles International Airport of the drug Ecstasy last year was taken as an ominous sign that the narcotic is still highly desirable among teenagers and others.
Federal agents on July 22 confiscated a 1,092-pound shipment from France containing $40 million worth of the drug. The shipment, the largest such confiscation in U.S. history, held about 2.1 million tablets, about a quarter of all the Ecstasy that had been seized up to that point in 2000.
“This signals that Ecstasy smuggling has reached an astounding new level,” said Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. “Capitalizing on increased demand, organized-crime groups are flooding our nation with Ecstasy at a rate never seen before.”
A report released on Nov. 26 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found the number of teenagers who said they used Ecstasy at least once had doubled since 1995, from 5 percent to 10 percent. It grew from 7 percent to 10 percent over the past year alone.
Use of a synthetic form of Ecstasy seen rarely since the 1970s, PMA, was blamed for the deaths of nine teenagers and young adults last year — three in Illinois and six in Florida. In Germany, one of the countries known as a source of club drugs, authorities recently shut down two labs that produced PMA. “It appears to be the same people who are putting out Ecstasy,” said DEA intelligence chief Steven Casteel.
Not all narcotic problems, of course, involved new or designer drugs. Federal authorities in June smashed a drug ring based in Narayit, Mexico, that was smuggling about 80 pounds of unusually pure heroin per month into the U.S. The drugs have been linked to at least 85 overdoses between 1995 and 1998 in the city of Chimayo, N.M.
In March, a 17-day series of raids led to 2,257 arrests and the seizure of a half-billion dollars worth in drugs by the DEA and military authorities in 26 Caribbean and Latin American countries. Called the biggest operation in DEA history, more than 7,000 raids were conducted beginning at 6 A.M. on March 10. Agents destroyed 94 cocaine labs and coca fields with a production potential of 25,415 kilograms.
One of the stranger plots to smuggle drugs into the country was uncovered in September, when DEA agents reported a scheme by Colombian drug traffickers to build a sophisticated submarine some 210 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, which would be capable of hauling up to 200 tons of cocaine.
Seized documents gave indications that Russian engineers were involved, said Capt. Fidel Azula, a former submarine captain and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who noted that even the Colombian Navy lacked the knowledge to build such a craft.