State crime lab sees meteoric rise in meth

A number of things have contributed to the rise of meth and its relatively growing share of the pie. 

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Photos from a meth lab in Sinaloa, Mexico, show giant barrels of chemicals, generators and other equipment surrounded by trees and under a canopy. Photo/DEA

CONCORD, NH – Over the past six years, methamphetamine has risen from relative obscurity in New Hampshire to the second most prevalent illegal narcotic substance, according to the state crime lab.

As the landscape of illicit drugs found on the streets shifts, the evidence samples sent by police departments for testing to the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab reflects those changes.

Lab Director Melisa Staples said illicit fentanyl remains the most popular and widely available drug found on the streets, but meth has grown to be 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,” Staples said. 

Last year, the lab tested 1,718 fentanyl samples and 1,169 meth samples. For meth, that’s over a 2,100 percent increase over six years.

The previous year, the second most prevalent drug tested by the lab was black market pharmaceuticals, which consists of a mix of opioids and anti-anxiety medications, predominantly. In 2019, pharmaceuticals were bumped to No. 3.

In 2014, meth was only a “blip on the radar,” according to Staples. The state lab received only 52 samples of meth, which accounted for 0.9 percent of all the drug classes the lab tested that year, behind every other.

At the time, today’s most prevalent drug, fentanyl, was also rare. The state only received 92 samples in 2014. 

A number of things have contributed to the rise of meth and its relatively growing share of the pie. 

Staples said marijuana used to be the most tested drug by the state lab, but by 2017 decriminalization of marijuana made it less of a priority. Suddenly, a drug that used to see an average of 2,000 samples in the lab each year dropped to 289 last year.

Around 2016, fentanyl was starting to overtake heroin and replace it in the black market, and that shift is reflected in the lab’s numbers. Synthetic cannabinoids (also called spice) have also become less popular over the years.

At this rate, Staples said she wouldn’t be surprised if meth were to overtake fentanyl in the top spot by 2021 or soon after.

“It’s getting closer,” she said. 

Scene from a meth lab visited by DEA Associate Special Agent In Charge Jon DeLena in June 2019. Photo/DEA

One of the biggest contributors to the growing availability and supply of meth is a change in how it’s sourced. 

In previous years, meth would be produced locally by clandestine labs in homes or in so-called “one-pot” labs, which were plastic bottles containing a volatile and sometimes explosive mixture of household ingredients and pseudoephedrine. 

Sometimes, people would order meth from dealers online and have it mailed to them. 

But lately, the same Mexican cartels who have been illicitly manufacturing and shipping fentanyl over the border and up to the Northeast have made significant steps to increase its production and distribution of methamphetamine. 

“Fentanyl and meth often have very similar trafficking routes up from Mexico,” Staples said. 

Timothy Desmond, a public information officer for the DEA’s New England office, said the cartels are hoping to capitalize on the addiction crisis they helped create and worsen with an alternative to the often-deadly 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,” Desmond said in an email.

DEA Associate Special Agent in Charge Jon DeLena said he recently toured a massive meth lab in Sinaloa, Mexico, in June 2019.

Meth lab in Sinaloa, Mexico. Photo/DEA

He said the cartels were producing seven tons of meth every three days at that site alone.

Staples said dealers may be marketing meth, which is a stimulant, as a safe alternative to fentanyl, which is a powerful sedative that can stop an overdosed user from breathing.

Meanwhile, the number of clandestine meth labs the state forensic laboratory is involved in assisting the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration with onsite testing has gone down, though she wasn’t sure there was a direct link between that and the rising availability from Mexico.

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 Staples.