The New Boss

Page 3 of 7

• The Solutions.

Despite the fact that meth addiction has been such a scourge in Arizona, state officials have been slow to act -- and their efforts have been far from comprehensive even when they do. There has been no statewide public health campaign that targets the drug, nor has there been a similar effort in Maricopa County for several years. No one seems to be talking about treatment, and it's extremely hard to find an inpatient rehab facility that works with meth addicts -- unless, of course, you can afford the $4,000-per-night tab at Meadows in Wickenburg.

Indeed, police, lawmakers and politicians have been focused on the quick, dramatic fix of closing meth labs instead of the harsh realities of treatment and prevention. And while meth-lab busts make for good headlines, and making it harder to buy pseudoephedrine-laden Claritin-D is a solution almost everyone can get behind, the plan does little to confront the reality of addiction in Arizona: Meth is pouring in from Mexico, and everybody from your boss to your high school kid is trying it. Forget those pictures Attorney General Terry Goddard likes to show of dirty babies standing in the middle of a meth house; think, instead, about your younger brother or sister and the fact that meth, initially, is fun.

The bottom line:

Meth is a bigger problem in Arizona than ever.

A problem that's overloading our criminal justice system.

A problem that's tearing apart families and stressing the state's health, social service and child protection agencies.

A problem that has yet to be met with public policy anywhere close to resembling a solution.

As policymakers flounder, local, state and federal law enforcement officers try to stem the flow of the drug first into the country and state, then into the Valley, then into the neighborhoods where meth houses sometimes still blight local communities.

They are winning the local battle on the labs.

But they are losing the now international war against meth.

Five years ago, the methamphetamine you'd find on the streets of Phoenix likely had been made in a bathtub down the street.

Now, it's likely being made at a sprawling compound at least a thousand miles south in Sinaloa or Michoacán.

For decades, the wooded and mountainous areas there have been a staging area for cocaine coming up from South America.

It's the perfect haven for major drug operations.

Like the mountains of many Third World countries, it is ruled by the law of the jungle. And over time, the poor and dispossessed there have come to see local traffickers as heroes.

And why not? For more than a century, the region has been ignored by a more-often corrupt federal government. If a local boy makes it big in the drug trade, he very often funnels a hefty portion back into the community. The fine church or school in this region is more often a gift from a local narco trafficker than good work by the government.

With the pipeline in place from the narcotics trade, it was easy for the Sinaloan Cowboys and their neighbors to make the switch to meth. All they needed were a few chemists and a steady supply of precursor drugs.

The cooks were easy to assemble. You can find recipes with a quick Google search. Or passed on from a fellow tweaker. The primary ingredient, pseudoephedrine tablets, is readily available -- by the barrel.

"It's coming from China, from Hong Kong, primarily," says Steve Comber, the assistant special agent in charge at the Phoenix field office of the DEA. "All you need is a broker with an international license. Then it's shipped in from China and then diverted to the labs."

Mexican labs will create as much as 70 pounds of crystal meth per batch, putting their American counterparts to shame. An average meth lab in Phoenix will make an ounce. "It's enough for themselves and 10 of their closest friends," says Phoenix PD's Don Sherrard. "That's what most Beavis-and-Butt-head labs are."

Then the drug is sent to the border in ever-more-creative vehicles.

Sometimes it's hidden in fruit bound for the United States. Very often it's taken to a custom body shop and built into a car or truck (traffickers have even modified eight-cylinder engines into six-bangers with two cylinders for drug storage).

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Robert Nelson
Joe Watson