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The 'fourth wave' of the opioid crisis: Feds warn of a rise in meth use

By Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau • Aug 25, 2019 at 5:00 AM

WASHINGTON — Federal drug enforcement agents are alarmed that the opioid epidemic is fueling a spike in methamphetamine use.

Across the country, meth overdose deaths and federal seizures from drug busts and border raids paint a stark picture of an increase in the drug's proliferation.

Demand for meth now poses the greatest challenge to the Drug Enforcement Administration, where agents see Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, as the two primary trafficking hubs on the Eastern seaboard.

One DEA agent said that drug cartels have easy access to the Carolinas through these hubs, primarily transferring loads by vehicles as large as tractor trailers.

"I don't want to downplay the importance of the opioid epidemic. But in the way of seizures, methamphetamines are No. 1 in South Carolina, followed by heroin spiked with fentanyl and then followed by opioids," Chuvalo Truesdell, a DEA special agent, told McClatchy. "That's overall, but it really depends on where you are. In Myrtle Beach, for example, heroin is still the big thing."

Half of American methamphetamine users suffer from opioid use disorder, according to U.S. officials, substantiating fears that a deadly increase in the use of prescription opioids, heroin and illicit fentanyl over the last decade has led to a compounding crisis in which the popularity of one drug has led to the popularity of another.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that drug overdose deaths decreased in 2018 from the prior year, to roughly 68,000 deaths from more than 70,000 in 2017, has been overshadowed by daunting trend lines within the data showing an increase in the usage of fentanyl and meth.

While deaths attributed to overdoses in fentanyl — a synthetic opioid — have risen tenfold in the past six years, statistics gathered in July by federal agencies found meth-related deaths now outpace fentanyl deaths in at least 12 states.

"We've seen three waves — we're very concerned about the fourth wave and getting ahead of it, and that's methamphetamine," one senior administration official said.

The National Institutes of Health says a flood of legally prescribed opioids has created a domino effect since the crisis began in 1999: 80% of heroin users began their addiction with prescription drugs between 2002 and 2012, and in the last decade, the number of prescription opioid users turning to meth has doubled.

"We could treat opioid use disorder very, very well with medication-assisted therapy," the official added. "There's no MAT for the methamphetamine that is pushed by the cartels."

Across South Carolina, each coroner's office keeps their own data, Truesdell explained, making it difficult for federal agents to track overdose trends. "No one has access to all the different numbers in all different places," he added. "You'd think it would be streamlined."

But seizures from drug busts complete a picture for drug enforcement agents trying to understand the extent of the crisis, Truesdell added.

Vice President Mike Pence announced $400 million in new federal grants to combat the crisis nationwide last month in Kentucky — one of the states worst hit by the opioid epidemic, and where meth-related overdose deaths increased 20-fold in the past decade. He said that drug trafficking had motivated President Donald Trump in part to declare a national emergency earlier this year on the southern border, where a large amount of fentanyl and meth cross over from sources in Mexico.

The "porous" border "has created an opportunity for drug cartels, in the midst of that crisis on our border, to move their illicit trade into the United States," Pence stated.

Drug overdoses have spiked since 1999 to become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old — a crisis fed by an unprecedented influx of billions of legally prescribed opioid pills.

The phenomenon extends nationwide.

The Department of Health and Human Services told McClatchy that methamphetamine deaths have outnumbered fentanyl deaths in 12 out of the 34 states that report monthly mortality statistics: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

In two of those states — Hawaii and Oklahoma — methamphetamine deaths now outnumber all opioid deaths.

"It's three times the purity and a third of the price," a second senior administration official said, claiming that 90% of meth consumed by Americans comes from Mexico. "This is an active adversary."

(c)2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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