Possession And The

People found with illegal drugs on their person (or in their cars or houses) are considered guilty of possession. The consequences of a possession charge depend on the drug, the quantity of drug, and the state in which the person is arrested. In many states, merely being in the company of someone who is in possession of illegal drugs (even if you are unaware of that situation) can make you guilty of possession.

With the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, lawmakers classified injectable methamphetamine as a Schedule II drug, recognizing its potential for abuse.5 Critics of the ille-galization of drugs point out that once a drug is made illegal, its production does not cease, but instead goes underground and becomes an increasingly profitable criminal enterprise. It can be seen as a type of evolutionary process. A lull in meth-mak-ing activity comes immediately after a new regulation goes into effect. Ever-adaptable meth manufacturers have, to date, always found ways around new laws, and eventually start production again with a few modifications. Law enforcement is in the difficult position of constantly chasing a moving target.

In the 1970s and 1980s, West coast biker gangs illicitly produced meth using a method known as P2P (the chemical precursor was phenyl-2-propanone.) In 1980, government officials regulated P2P as an illegal substance. It became very difficult to acquire P2P, and meth production and use went down. This decline was not due to a decrease in demand but rather a decrease in supply.2

Biker meth cooks discovered that ephedrine, found in Sudafed and other over-the-counter cold medicines, produced a type of meth that was more potent than the meth made from P2P. They also discovered that pseudoephedrine could serve as a precursor chemical.11

The Controlled Substances Act was amended to restrict these and other chemical precursors through the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988, under which 12 precursor chemicals became strictly regulated by the DEA. These chemicals are known as "Listed Chemicals." Today, over 35 chemicals are listed and regulated by the DEA.23

List 1 Chemicals are precursors such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine that can be directly converted to an illicit drug. List 2 Chemicals are used in the manufacture of illegal drugs, such as iodine, red phosphorus, and hydrochloric acid.

Figure 8.2 A Pierce County sheriff's deputy places a suspect under arrest for having a portable methamphetamine lab in the trunk of a stolen car he possessed near Tacoma, Washington. © Lui Kit Wong/AP Images

These three chemicals are used to make hydriodic acid, a key ingredient that extracts ephedrine from cold medicines in order to produce methamphetamine.23, 41, 51

The Controlled Substances Act required suppliers of these listed chemicals to keep records of import and sales documents. Federal officials hoped the law would curtail the supply of these needed ingredients to make meth, for instance, by tracking unusually large shipments and sales of precursor chemicals.11, 23 However, some of these chemicals are here for larger, legitimate uses in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, and diversion is always possible.


A senior DEA official involved with drafting the law was aware of the spread of meth at this time, and wanted to set limits on the amount of cold and allergy medicines customers could buy. The $252 billion a year pharmaceutical industry, with its strong, organized, political lobbying power, was able to remove that restriction from the law. In addition, they were able to insert a loophole in the law that exempted legal products, such as a tablet, that already contained ephedrine and pseudoephed-rine. This meant that importers of raw ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine powder had to keep records, but sellers of finished pills or liquids containing the chemicals did not.11, 52

Lack of restrictions to close these loopholes in the pharmaceutical industry during the late 1980s may have directly contributed to an "unnecessary" meth epidemic. There are only nine legal producers of raw ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in the world. Tighter regulations of these huge laboratories could have also reduced the supply of meth in the United States. However, cocaine and heroin were much bigger problems at the time, and meth took a "bureaucratic back seat." Still, the pharmaceutical industry knew their products were being used to make methamphetamine.11


Meth manufacturers managed to exploit legal loopholes in the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act. In the early 1990s, meth cooks simply began using pills from cold and allergy medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine since they were unregulated by law.

A Mexican drug cartel run by the Amezcua brothers began buying ephedrine in bulk from some of the overseas producers that also supply the pharmaceutical companies with their legal supplies to make cold medicines. Superlabs appeared in California, producing meth that was twice as potent as before, including crystal meth.11

In 1993, the Domestic Chemical Diversion Control Act was enacted and put stricter regulations on ephedrine. Ephedrine was the precursor used in 79 percent of all meth labs seized by the DEA that year, while pseudoephedrine was used in fewer than 2 percent of the seized laboratories.11, 14

A U.S. customs agent discovered 3.4 metric tons of ephed-rine powder during a routine search on a plane traveling from Switzerland to Mexico in 1994. The chemical was traced to a factory in India that turned out to be the Amezcua cartel's source for several years. The DEA learned that during one 18-month period, the Amezcua traffickers smuggled in 170 tons of ephedrine to the United States. That amount is enough to produce two billion hits of meth.11

By 1996, pseudoephedrine was identified as the precursor in more than 75 percent of the seized laboratories that year. Once again, meth manufacturers had learned to go with the federal government's flow, and began using pseudoephedrine in their recipes instead of the more regulated ephedrine.11, 23


The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 was passed to regulate pseudoephedrine, putting into effect a provision that had been desired 10 years earlier but had been shot down by the pharmaceutical industry. The law put restrictions on legal products containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The DEA reached a compromise with the pharmaceutical industry to accomplish this. Customers were restricted to purchasing three packs of cold medications at a time. Ephedrine-only products (pure ephedrine tablets) were stored behind the counter, and sales were recorded for the DEA. Pharmacists began to train their employees to monitor "suspicious" transactions of individual customers who bought very large amounts of these regulated products.11

The law exempted pills sold in blister packs, as the DEA thought it would be too cumbersome for illegal drug manufacturers to use in large volumes. Within three years, blister packs of pseudoephedrine were found in 47 percent of seized meth labs.11

Wholesale distributors of over-the-counter cold medicines needed to register with the DEA for a license under this new law. The DEA took a year to put the licensing part of the law into effect. By that time, there was an overflow of wholesalers requesting a license to sell pseudoephedrine since the cartels were using that precursor exclusively. Before long, companies set up as brokers for the meth cartels made millions of dollars by selling pseudoephedrine to the superlabs. Wholesalers licensed by the U.S. government conducted all of this illegal business.11


Over the next few years, the DEA cracked down on "bogus" pseudoephedrine wholesalers, and the meth supply dried up a bit. But this has been part of an unfortunate pattern. Each time the federal government passed a meth law, it only affected a piece of the meth supply problem. After each regulation, the meth supply went down, its purity decreased, and its price increased—for a short while. Each time the meth cooks found new ways to make their product and to supply their waiting customers with meth.

At this time, pseudoephedrine was unregulated in Canada. Over a period of four years, Canada's bulk pseudoephedrine imports for the manufacture of cold pills quadrupled as these raw ingredients actually were diverted to supply meth makers in the United States.11

Meanwhile, the federal government attempted to curtail the ways meth cooks obtained their recipes and other meth-making communication channels with the 2000 Meth Anti-Proliferation Act. Civil rights organizations lobbied for cuts to many of the provisions of the original law that actually would have infringed upon the American public's right to free speech. The enacted law further reduced the number of cold/allergy

Continue reading here: Trends In Meth Lab Seizures

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