Meth series: Sheriff Ed Lester on the changing face of meth in Butte

December 11, 2016 - Montana Standard

Butte’s recent experiences with mass quantities of cartel-grade meth reflect how national trends in the manufacture and distribution of narcotics have changed the composition of the US drug market, and local police say it’s no longer a matter of simply knocking down meth labs.

In an interview last week, Silver Bow County Sheriff Ed Lester said Southwest Montana is seeing a greater quantity of meth than it ever has before, and according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, meth in America is cheaper and stronger than ever. A DEA study comparing meth prices and potency from 2007 to 2010 found the price of a pure gram of meth dropped nearly 70 percent, from $270 to $105, while purity more than doubled from 39 to 83 percent.

Purity and quantity have continued to rise since 2010, with even a drug trade backwater like Butte seeing dealers like Lester Oxendine selling over 40 pounds of meth which DEA crime labs reported as 97 percent pure.

Oxendine said his meth came from Las Vegas, which is a leg on the northward journey the National Drug Intelligence Agency says meth takes from “super labs” in Southern California and Northwest California, principally those owned by the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to the NDIA, the increase in purity and quantity of methamphetamine is the result of highly organized cartels overtaking the smaller domestic operations that previously supplied meth in their local communities over the last decade. According to a 2011 NDIA study, small-scale meth production at the time was most prevalent in rural areas where cartels had yet to establish distribution networks.

The caveat, according to the report, was that “while small-scale domestic laboratories account for only a small portion of the U.S. supply, their emergence tends to stimulate the growth of new markets where the drug was previously unavailable.”

That matches up with Lester’s claims that even though officials are seeing more product than ever, it isn’t produced here anymore. He said the Butte area had never had many meth labs and that police haven’t even taken one down in years.

“I don’t believe we have anyone making much meth here,” Lester said, beyond the occasional crock pot or shake-and-bake cook.

Laws in America now make it difficult for domestic cooks to purchase the precursor chemicals needed for methamphetamine, but Mexican cartels have no trouble importing them in bulk from China.

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