The Meth Phantom: National Overview

A deputy neutralizes a bottle used for manufacturing methamphetamine. (2012)

We have a small sedan in our impound lot that was used for smuggling methamphetamine into Carter County. A couple people would drive to California, purchase meth from a cartel, and then drive thousands of miles back. Not once was the car pulled over or searched by other law enforcement agencies during those trips. We began tracking the vehicle over several months, and during that time the car transported at least 500 pounds of meth over about two dozen trips. Those are just the trips we know about.


Meth moves around the nation with ease. That’s the problem we face now as law enforcement. We used to see a lot of meth labs in the county, but we have now hunted them to close to extinction. Meth hasn’t gone away though. The dealers have adapted.


One of the things I’ve noticed from my time in drug investigations is that people don’t seem to know how we operate or why. So I want to give a glimpse of what it is we’re seeing in our community, and what we’re doing about it. But before I can tell you about the local picture, I have to explain the national picture and how it’s affecting us, so that’s what I’ll do in this post.

What Meth Used To Be

In the mid-2000’s and even as late as 2013, meth was usually made domestically. Cooks bought pseudophedrine, and then made meth with ingredients often found at home. They got around laws limiting purchases of pseudophedrine by recruiting “smurfers”: people who would go buy pseudophedrine from different locations.


We had to change our focus as law enforcement to combat this problem. We recognized that we couldn’t just jail addiction away. And even if we locked up every drug user we could find, there would still be a demand for meth. So we chose to make fighting supply the top priority instead of fighting demand. Rather than focusing our resources on arresting every person who had a meth addiction, we began to focus on clearing out the cooks and limiting their ability to manufacture meth.


So from 2009 to 2013, we led Tennessee in charges filed for meth manufacturing and possessing anhydrous ammonia (an ingredient for meth). We filed more than 1,200 charges, and we busted hundreds of meth labs. We effectively destroyed meth cooks’ ability to supply meth to the county.


Materials used for making meth that were seized during an investigation.

Since we crushed meth labs as a supply source, the dealers had to adapt. As domestic meth was pushed out, they began looking for foreign meth, and they found it with the Mexican cartels.

Meth Now

Most of the meth in our county now comes from Mexico. The Mexican cartels smuggle drugs across the southern border into the United States. Then they bring the drugs to distribution hubs, where they can be sold to just about anyone and transported anywhere in the country, including directly to Carter County.


Cartels can manufacture high-purity meth that can be cut to create a high number of low-purity sales. Since most of the meth users in our area were accustomed to low-purity meth already, it doesn’t take much Mexican ice to make sure they can get what they want.


The new source makes enforcement a lot more difficult for us and other agencies. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the capability or authority to go the border and stop drugs from being smuggled into the country. That is the job of federal agencies. It’s our job to disrupt the supply coming into our county by developing intelligence and arresting local dealers and the people who sell to them.

Why does this matter?

It’s important to understand what to look for when you suspect drug activity. Right now, one of the most frequent calls I receive is from people who complain that they have a neighbor who is cooking meth. We investigate those calls, and 95 percent of the time they’re not cooking meth. Sometimes there’s other drug activity going on, but a lot of times nothing illegal is happening. I’ll be writing more about that soon.


You should also know that our county is not unique from other communities at this point. We are facing the same meth problem that the whole nation is facing. Even though we used to be the center of the fight against meth, we have made enough headway that we no longer are, and what we are seeing now is pretty normal stuff. Of course that doesn’t mean we’re going to slow down any, but it’s good to take stock of where we are now versus where we used to be.


In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about what we are doing locally to combat methamphetamine and about what you can do to spot drug activity. Even though there are some things nationally that aren’t in our control, we’re still bringing some strong cases and sentences against the dealers in our area.


— Captain Mike Little