The spectacular rise of methamphetamine use in New Hampshire

The Manchester InkLink news website reports that over the past six years, methamphetamine use in New Hampshire has risen from nowhere to second place on the list of illegally-used drugs. That statistic was derived by the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab from samples sent by police departments.

According to Lab Director Melisa Staples, fentanyl remains the most popular and widely available illicit drug, although meth has grown to become a close contender. Meth has been rising every year. And last year, in 2019, it took over as the No. 2 drug in the state, behind fentanyl, she says.

Last year, the forensic lab tested 1,718 fentanyl samples and 1,169 meth samples. That represents a greater than 2,100 percent jump in the number of meth samples tested, in comparison to six years ago.

The previous year, black market pharmaceuticals were the second most prevalent drug. These mostly consist of a mix of opioids and anti-anxiety medications. In 2019, illicit pharmaceuticals were bumped down to third place.

Staples reports that in 2014, meth was only a blip on the radar. The state lab received only 52 samples of meth in that year, accounting for 0.9 percent of all the drug classes the lab tested; less than all than others.

Today’s most prevalent drug, fentanyl, was also rare at the time. New Hampshire only received 92 samples in 2014.

The rise of cartel-sourced fentanyl and methamphetamine

Marijuana used to be the most often-tested drug by the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab, but by 2017 decriminalization had lowered its priority for law enforcement agencies. The drug that had been responsible for an average of 2,000 lab samples per year fell to 289 last year.

Around 2016, fentanyl started to overtake heroin and replace it in the black market, and that shift was reflected in samples submitted to the lab. Synthetic cannabinoids (a.k.a. “spice”) have also become less popular over the years.

At this rate, says Staples, it wouldn’t be surprising if meth overtook fentanyl for the top spot by around 2021.

The most important factor in the growing availability of meth is a change in who produces it, which greatly changes the scale on which it's manufactured.

Before, meth was produced domestically in clandestine labs hidden in people's homes or in “one-pot” labs. These makeshift laboratories consisted of plastic bottles holding a volatile and potentially explosive mixture of household ingredients and pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is used, for example, as the active ingredient in the nasal decongestant Sudafed.

People could order meth on the dark web, and online dealers would have it mailed to them.

Thanks to federal and states laws enacted to curb the production of methamphetamine, domestic production has fallen. Instead of disappearing, as hoped, the manufacture of methamphetamine has shifted to the very same Mexican drug cartels that manufacture fentanyl and ship it across the border and up to the U.S. Northeast. The cartels have made significant advances in the production and distribution of methamphetamine on an industrial scale.

Timothy Desmond, a public information officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration New England Division, says the cartels are hoping to capitalize on the addiction crisis they helped create by pushing an alternative to the often-deadly synthetic opioids.

New Hampshire has historically had a small demand for methamphetamine that was supplied by one-pot labs. Users would typically go around to retail stores and purchase items to make the meth. Since the introduction of fentanyl approximately five years ago into the U.S. market by Mexican cartels, they have since tried to capitalize on producing tons and tons of meth and flood the market and hopefully addictions would turn to meth as much as opioids, like fentanyl, wrote Timothy Desmond to the Manchester InkLink.

Jon DeLena, Associate Special Agent in Charge at the DEA New England Division, says he toured a massive meth lab in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in June 2019. Sinaloa is, of course, the home territory of Mexico's infamous Sinaloa Cartel.

DeLena says the cartel was producing seven tons of meth every three days, at that one site alone.

Meanwhile, the number of New Hampshire clandestine meth labs that the state forensic laboratory assists the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration with has gone down.

The number of clandestine labs they worked on peaked at 14 in 2017 and dropped to three in 2019, and five so far this year, according to numbers provided by Lab Director Melisa Staples.