From there, the methamphetamine gets distributed across the U.S. by drug couriers, and there is a direct route to Northeast Tennessee.
“Geographically, in Tennessee with the interstate systems that we have .... if you’ve got a major hub, specifically methamphetamine and Atlanta being such, it doesn’t take them very long, and it reduces the risk,” Special Agent Tommy Farmer said. “They can go down to Atlanta, make direct contact with larger sources and more supply.The risks are diminished because they aren’t required to carry as much and they can make more trips.”
He said with the interstate system through East Tennessee, “it makes us a well-traveled area.”
Special Agent Jim Williams said it’s hard to tell to identify another hub between Atlanta and Northeast Tennessee, but there are multiple “organizations within this region that have sources of supply in the Atlanta area and (they) go directly there. Some people would argue that Knoxville has more sources of supply here, but I think it’s just because of the population being higher. If you go out into the rural areas, there are people distributing the same amounts or larger.”
Williams said there are active cases with Mexican cartel connections, but said he couldn’t accurately determine if there are direct cartel connections in current investigations.
And while meth holds the number two slot for drugs sent to the TBI lab, it’s gaining ground on the number one drug, which is marijuana.
“From a crime lab perspective, (methamphetamine is) our number two drug this year,” Mike Lyttle, assistant director of the crime lab said recently. “I expect with the way things are going that it may be our number one drug next year.
“It’s interesting we’ve seen a huge reduction in the number of meth labs but we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of cases we’re seeing. What we’re finding is these are not homemade meth cases anymore. these are cases that probably come from Mexican drug cartels ... we’re seeing them in huge abundances.”
Lyttle said he believes the influx of high quality meth has driven down the cost of the drug to the point it’s no longer effective for drug users to make it themselves.
“In 2010 and 2011 we were the meth manufacturing capital of the United States with more than 2,086 meth labs seized, or about 7.5 a day. So an appetite for stimulants, specifically methamphetamine, is nothing new to our state or any many other states.,” Farmer said.
“What we have seen is that transition, obviously after the meth we’ve battled with an opioid epidemic for a number of years. Stimulants following opioids are also very common. Then the amount or flow of high-grade methamphetamine coming across our borders has really driven down the cost of methamphetamine, and we just have a lot,” Farmer said.
In the lab, testing for methamphetamine includes a color test as well as instrumental analysis. Lab scientists take a small portion and use a liquid agent used for the color test to determine if there is an amine in the substance.
In the color test, methamphetamine turns a really dark orange color then keeps going to a brown/black color. Other drugs will turn other colors. Opiates will often turn purple, fentanyl also turns orange but it’s a slightly different orange and it turns a lot slower than methamphetamine does.
The color screening tells scientists there’s “some sort of amine in there ... that’s why we do the instrumental analysis is to determine which amine is in there,” a lab tech said.
Between the meth and and the increasing number of marijuana vs. hemp cases, Lyttle said the lab can barely keep up with samples sent in by law enforcement agencies. All three agents said the agency needs more resources — from lab space and scientists to field agents — to continue battling the drug trade.
Agents also said even with the high amount of meth entering the area, they are also still dealing with cocaine, heroin and now fentanyl.