Meth still a Missouri problem, but now it comes from Mexico

Missouri may have shed its unwanted image as the meth lab capital of the U.S., but a top DEA official says the drug remains a major problem

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri may have shed its unwanted image as the meth lab capital of the U.S., but the dangerous and addictive drug remains a major problem, a top Drug Enforcement Administration official said Friday.

The depth of the problem became clear Thursday when the DEA announced a methamphetamine crackdown called Operation Crystal Shield, which will focus on eight “transportation hubs” where high levels of Mexican meth are being seized. The St. Louis Division, which covers all of Missouri and Kansas as well as southern Illinois, is the northernmost of the eight targeted areas. The others are Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Phoenix.

The targeted DEA divisions accounted for more than 75% of all meth seizures last year. The St. Louis Division includes hundreds of miles of major roadways through the three states, including interstates 35, 70, 44 and 55, providing a pipeline not only to the central U.S. but the upper Midwest and the Northeast.

William J. Callahan, special agent in charge of the St. Louis Division, said the targeted operation will allow better coordination of intelligence about trafficking routes, the types of vehicles being used, and other information.

For many years, meth was a two-pronged problem: Much of it came from Mexico, but thousands of users across the U.S. made their own drug in home labs or simply by mixing the dangerous concoction in a 2-liter soda bottle. In 2004, more than 24,000 meth labs were seized across the U.S., including nearly 3,000 in Missouri, which for years was atop the list of states for lab seizures.

A 2005 federal law that regulated the retail sale of over-the-counter cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in the manufacture of homemade meth — and similar efforts by state legislatures led to a sharp decline in labs. Statistics for 2017 show about 2,500 lab seizures nationwide and just 91 in Missouri.

But it doesn’t mean people stopped using the drug that often causes bizarre hallucinations and can lead to rotting teeth, brain damage and death. Mexican “super labs” filled the void, producing a drug with a higher purity but at a low cost.

“There’s still always that demand for meth,” Callahan said.

Within the St. Louis Division, meth is most problematic in western Missouri and Kansas, while fentanyl and heroin are bigger concerns in St. Louis, Callahan said.

The DEA said its seizures of meth rose by 127%, from 49,507 pounds (22,456 kilograms) to 112,146 pounds (50,869 kilograms), between fiscal years 2017 and 2019, and DEA meth-related arrests rose by nearly 20%. Authorities seized about 50,000 pounds (22,680 kilograms) at U.S.-Mexico border crossings from October through January — more than was seized for the entire 2017 fiscal year, the DEA said.

St. Louis Division seizures rose 56% in just one year, from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2019.