The sharp rise in opioid abuse and fatal overdoses has overshadowed another mounting drug problem: Methamphetamine use is rising across the country.
“Usage of methamphetamine nationally is at an all-time high,” says Erik Smith, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Kansas City office.
“It is back with a vengeance,” he says of meth.
The reasons for that are twofold, he says. The drug is now stronger, and cheaper, than it used to be.
Law enforcement agencies say drug cartels are pumping cheap, potent meth from so-called “Mexican super labs” through established heroin and cocaine distribution networks.
Sgt. Mark McClendon of the Missouri Highway Patrol says meth is reaching places and people it never did before.
“The meth problem has basically exploded across every race and social economic class that you can imagine,” McClendon says.
No longer a drug chiefly made by domestic “cooks” in makeshift labs, methamphetamine is now the domain of Mexican drug cartels that are mass-producing high-quality quantities and pushing it into markets where it was previously unknown.
Meth use is on the upswing even in rural communities it has already ravaged over decades, due to its price, availability and a shortage of treatment options.
Southwest Missouri's Bootheel is one place with a long history of methamphetamine abuse.
Locally produced meth started taking hold in small towns such as Qulin in the late 1980s, snaring generations of residents like Dustin Siebert.
“I started using methamphetamine when I was 18, 19 years old,” says Siebert, rubbing his tattooed hands. “And, months later, some four or five months, I was helping other people manufacture it. Took over my life, like it did just about everybody else in this area.”
Siebert says he’s been off of meth for four years, but he says many people in the town of 450 have never been able to fully shake it.
Amber Windhorst, the school social worker in Qulin, agrees.
“A high number of our kids are affected by drug use in the home. Or mom and dad have left, because they’re out using,” Windhorst says.
Windhorst says grandparents are raising many of those kids, but in some families meth use now spans three generations.
“A lot of times we are teaching our children how to survive,” says Windhorst. “Because you have everything that goes with the drugs: lack of food, lack of safety, shelter.”
Not to mention theft, prostitution, and a recent outbreak of Hepatitis A.
Meth use dipped early this decade when lawmakers cut access to key ingredients like pseudoephedrine cold pills. Siebert says it was about the same time that opioids took hold here.
“Now that they’re hammering down on the opiates, guess what’s happening? Now the meth is coming back in,” Siebert says.
But at least in Missouri, drug policy isn’t keeping up. The state prioritizes opioid addiction over meth addiction, making intensive treatment for uninsured meth users hard to come by. And in contrast to opioids, clinicians have no medications to help wean people off meth.
In southeast Missouri, just about the only response seems to be a crop of new, faith-based meth support groups.
“Cambell’s got one, Malden’s got two, Qulin’s got one,” says Siebert. “Poplar Bluff’s got one every night of the week.”
Siebert founded his own group, the Matthew 25 Project. On a recent Thursday night about a dozen and a half people – a mix of people addicted to meth, those recently weaned off it, and others just offering support – met in a stark white room at the Qulin Assembly of God church. Siebert preaches that God made lots of people with addictive personalities, but he intended them to be addicted to religion.
“We’re supposed to be addicted to him, and the things of the kingdom,” Siebert tells the small assembly.
Siebert maintains that limiting access to drugs only creates demand for other drugs.
“Because the problem is addiction,” he says. “Until they figure out why people want to get high and use drugs, it’s always going to be something else.”
Siebert says southeastern Missouri's decades of experience with methamphetamine should serve as a warning to parts of the country where the drug is spreading now.
Frank Morris is an NPR correspondent and senior editor based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow him on Twitter: @frank newsman.