DES MOINES — While opioid addiction in Iowa is a growing problem that garners much attention, a more familiar drug is making its own gains, showing up in a new form and with a new way of getting to Iowans.
Methamphetamine, which first rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a highly addictive and destructive drug, appears to be surging in Iowa again, leading to more treatment admissions and deaths. The Quad-City area, especially in small towns, has been hit especially hard by the resurgence of methamphetamine. But the increase in meth treatment and arrests extends across Iowa, and in some regions, it never went away.
The number of treatment admissions for methamphetamine use increased 38 percent in Iowa from 2014 to 2017, and more than doubled from 2011 to 2017, according to the state public health department.
And meth is now the second-most reported drug by adults who enter treatment, moving ahead of marijuana for the first time and behind only alcohol, the state said.
The increase in use is having fatal consequences. The number of meth-related deaths in Iowa increased eight-fold from 2011 to 2017 — from 12 to 96 — according to state figures. As of Tuesday, there were 76 meth-related deaths in Iowa so far this year.
The cost of meth has fallen significantly and it is typically purchased and delivered rather than homemade, possibly helping contribute to the recent increases in treatment admissions and deaths, Iowa law enforcement officials said.
“Methamphetamine has had a stronghold in northwest Iowa for the last 20 years,” said David Drew, the Woodbury County Sheriff and a board member of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association. “It never really slowed down.”
When meth first burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, it was primarily a homemade drug, made in so-called meth labs, typically found in abandoned buildings or homes. The white, odorless, powdered drug was made by combining pseudoephedrine, which is used to treat nasal and sinus congestion, with lithium from batteries and ammonia nitrate, among other ingredients.
States, including Iowa, passed laws that moved pseudoephedrine off store shelves so it had to be distributed by a pharmacist, which allowed for its sale to be tracked.
Meth labs have become increasingly rare, but users are getting the product in a new way: it’s produced elsewhere — often from outside the U.S. — and shipped to the buyer.
“We used to see a lot of meth labs locally. That’s dropped off almost entirely,” said Mike Colby, a captain with the Clear Lake police department and a member of the North Central Iowa Narcotics Task Force. “Locally produced meth is few and far between. You have a lot of higher-grade, super-lab meth made in Mexico and California and other areas, and that’s being brought into the U.S. through our southern border. ... There’s been a huge influx of meth from other countries coming in through our porous borders over the last 10 years.”
Also complicating the latest rise in meth use is the more pure form the drug has taken in recent years, law enforcement officials said.
Drew said when the drug was first a problem roughly two decades ago, some of it would be only 10 percent meth. Now, Drew said, it is almost 100 percent pure meth.
“Purity is really the biggest thing that would make us all worried,” Drew said. “I think you’re going to have some major issues from how pure it is and what they’re doing with it. It is a concern. ...
“The price has gone down and the purity has gone up.”
The battle to address meth use and addiction is ongoing, law enforcement officials said. Drew noted the Woodbury County Sheriffs Department in the late 1990s joined a tri-state task force with officials from Nebraska and South Dakota, yet 20 years later the battle continues.
“I could tell you that we received some national awards because we dismantled some meth organizations, had a couple hundred defendants, but it just never slowed down,” Drew said. “The numbers are still the same, sometimes even more. ...
“I know a lot of people I put in prison for years, they just said it was highly addictive and their lives got ruined. Now they’re out, some I think are doing very well. But it’s a constant battle for them, I’m sure, with that addiction.”
More resources are needed to fight meth addiction and the growing abuse of and addiction to opioid painkillers, Colby said. He said some users are becoming addicted to both meth and opioids.
“We’re spread thin,” Colby said. “With the heroin epidemic working its way through our country, we’re having to fight to major drugs with the same resources. ... This is not something we’re going to beat or be able to stay on top of without some additional resources.”
The state public health department said it is working with prevention and treatment centers to assess how meth use is impacting Iowans in all 99 counties, and that those assessments involve discussions with many stakeholders, including law enforcement officials.
A spokeswoman for the state public health department encouraged anyone seeking more information about methamphetamine use, including to find treatment options, can visit the department’s website yourlifeiowa.org.
“What we’re focusing on is identifying how meth is impacting Iowans,” said Katie Bee, with the state public health department’s substance abuse division, “and creating those resources.”