PORTLAND, Ore. — A surge of cheap, potent methamphetamine from Mexico is flooding the U.S. drug market, and the growing problem is exacerbating the mental health and homelessness crises in Portland.
Oregon has long experienced the ravages of meth. At one point, Oregon had the most meth addicts per capita in the country. The viral Faces of Meth anti-drug campaign from the 2000s began in Multnomah County. In 2018, the New York Times reported what was by then an open secret on Portland's streets: meth, a drug that many thought had been effectively shut out, was back in force and making inroads in communities it had never affected before.
There's no question the drug is here and readily available. The Department of Justice recently made a major drug bust in Portland, taking down two trafficking cells and seizing more than 40 pounds of meth. In October, officers made the largest meth bust in Oregon history in Eugene — 384 pounds of methamphetamine, worth more than a million dollars, along with stolen guns and thousands of dollars in cash.
Last month, an article in The Atlantic explored the changing world of drugs in the United States, including Portland, brought on by a new way of manufacturing methamphetamine over the last 15 years. The article explains that meth used to be made primarily from ephedrine, the drug in cold medicine that led to a flurry of restrictions to try to crack down on homegrown meth labs. Those regulations made it harder to produce meth in the "traditional" way, and U.S.-based meth labs have become much more rare.
As Mexican cartels looked for a way to make up for lost income as the black market for marijuana largely dried up, they began relying more on meth.
Using what officials call the P2P method, drug manufacturers are able to use a variety of caustic chemicals — widely available thanks to their use in other industries — to produce large quantities of meth at so-called "super labs," quantities that would be physically impossible to produce in ephedrine-based labs. The price of meth collapsed as the cheap, highly potent drug flooded the market.
But there is something different about P2P meth. While ephedrine-based meth tended to be more of a slow burn, potentially taking years for addicts to experience the worst long-term effects, P2P meth appears to do more damage to the brain — and much more quickly.
According to the Mental Health Addiction Association of Oregon, meth is now the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Oregon. Across the state, overdose deaths have increased dramatically, from 43 in 2010 to 289 in 2019.
In Portland, where mental health resources are already difficult to come by, providers are seeing more people experiencing mental health episodes while under the influence of meth.
"It comes in different degrees," said Dr. Rachel Solotaroff, CEO of Central City Concern, a nonprofit that works with people experiencing homelessness and addiction. "Some people are using the drug socially, at very low levels, and maintaining a high degree of function. At its most extreme, we have seen how methamphetamine is inducing a kind of toxic delirium, a kind of really agitated mental state which sometimes can make people very agitated, very non-communicative."
Solotaroff said there are many factors at play, particularly for people experiencing homelessness. Loss of community and social services during the pandemic could lead someone to use drugs to cope. Someone living on the streets might use meth to stay awake at night and protect their belongings.
She said it's important to reduce the stigma of people with substance abuse disorders.
"It's a very prevalent issue. We all know someone or have experienced it ourselves."