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Meth remains down but not out

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Smuggled meth from Mexico is driving down the price and keeping the drug on the market in Larimer County, Colo., among other places

Illegal drug use in Larimer County, Colo. was once fairly predictable.

“Four years ago, if you were a coke guy, you’d stick to coke, heroin would stick to heroin, meth guys would stick to meth,” said Joe Shellhammer, a captain in the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office who is a commander in the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force. “Now people will buy $200 of heroin, $100 of meth and do what they can get.”

Why? Interstate 25, which runs north from the Mexican border at El Paso, Texas is a big reason, Shellhammer said. With domestic measures taken to restrict large-scale acquisition of pharmaceutical ingredients that could allow people to make the drug in their own home, the price of Mexican meth has plummeted. Shellhammer reports that a gram, which cost $110 in 2005, can go for $30 in 2019.

“It’s absolutely a buyer’s market, it’s so flooded,” he said. We used to have trends: Where meth would trend up, heroin would trend down, coke would trend down. Then we’d hammer meth and coke would trend up.”

In addition, Shellhammer added, some “blends” now mix meth and fentanyl.

In the shadow of the widespread opioid epidemic, meth has been somewhat forgotten. The National Institute on Drug Abuse last updated its resources on the drug in 2013, and unlike opioids, its spread was not hastened by the legitimate medical community. But even so, it remains a problem, particularly in the Midwest and interior West.

Meth labs, which were prone to exploding, have also tapered off as production has moved south, but risks still remain.

Parks and recreation workers for Larimer County, Colo., have to look out when picking up trash, because soft drink bottles could very well have been used to make small batches of meth.

“For some reason, they like Mountain Dew bottles,” said Katie O’Donnell, public information officer for the health department. “It might be the green bottle. You can tell it’s been used for meth because there’s a pink ring.”

“Meth is still produced, but it doesn’t look like it used to,” she said. “It’s important not to open these bottles.” Meth use can also be an environmental hazard. Larimer County spent more than $160,000 to demolish a “nuisance house” that, while the site of more than just meth use, was contaminated. The county also had to assign deputies to guard the house before it was destroyed. 

“We do a lot of outreach to realtors, as far as what to look out for,” O’Connell said. “We have a lot of rentals, so often the realtor is the first person in there where people have been smoking meth. Now they know when to call someone to do testing.”

“Most people won’t come in contact with a house like that, but realtors do,” he noted.

Shellhammer’s task force tries to disrupt the supply of drugs, but particularly with meth, it doesn’t last long.

“We can take a group of 32 [drug] runners, suppliers — and man, it gets built back up in a week,” he said. “We’re picking up 60 pounds of uncut meth in a bust and that barely makes a dent.”

Despite low unemployment, the lure of drug money can be hard to resist.

“You can make a lot of money doing something nefarious,” he said. “Why work in a lumber yard or doing something difficult if the money and the supply is out there?” He sees state’s cannabis legalization drawing in young people from surrounding states, “either to work in the industry or take up the lifestyle,” he said, which refreshes the labor force.

“The age range for the transient population is changing. It used to be the 50s, now it’s the 20s and 30s.”

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