Oregon meth-related deaths jump 22 percent in 2010, most in a decade

From The Oregonian, May 12, 2011

Methamphetamine-related deaths in Oregon jumped 22 percent in 2010, claiming 106 lives — the most in a single year over the last decade, according to statistics compiled by the state medical examiner.

READ – The Numbers Have Dropped But Meth Still Takes Its Toll, OPB.org – April 27, 2011

Gresham police and Multnomah County Sheriffs officers in hazmat uniforms clean out a meth lab in 1999, a frequent sight during the years before the state required a prescription for cold medicines with pseudoephedrine , one of the main ingredients used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Although Oregon successfully wiped out local manufacture of methamphetamine after the state adopted tight restrictions on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, that’s not the case in other Western states. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the ingredients in cold medicine used to make meth.

And since Mexico banned pseudoephedrine four years ago, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are now manufacturing the drug in California, Arizona, Nevada and Washington.

“They can’t make the good stuff in Mexico, so they’re making the good stuff back in America,” said Rob Bovett, Lincoln County district attorney, who serves as legal counsel to the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association and had chaired Oregon’s Meth Task Force.

Bovett said Mexican drug organizations are manufacturing large amounts of methamphetamine in California, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Seattle, paying people to purchase pseudoephedrine products for the production of the drug. The process has become known as smurfing, or supersmurfing, where traffickers pay dozens of people to buy pseudoephedrine in quantities at or below legal thresholds from multiple retail stores.

A Fresno County investigation, for example, found that a couple had been soliciting homeless individuals to travel from store to store to buy pseudoephedrine, paying each $30, according to a report from the National Drug Intelligence Center.

“They’re supersmurfing everywhere across the West Coast, except Oregon,” Bovett said.

That’s why Bovett testified before the California Legislature last month, urging the state’s lawmakers to follow Oregon’s lead and require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine and ephedrine. He called California’s Senate Bill 315, modeled after Oregon’s legislation, “the most important bill for Oregon’s drug-endangered children.”

Bovett said that methamphetamine use in Oregon is rebounding somewhat, but he cautioned against drawing conclusions from one year of fatality data. He said statewide drug arrests and hospital admission figures from meth use show the the numbers don’t nearly approach the peak Oregon experienced in 2006 and 2007.

“The numbers are still very small, when you look at the whole data set,” he said.

State Medical Examiner Dr. Karen Gunson said traumatic deaths, where there’s methamphetamine detected in the body, are included in the state’s methamphetamine-related fatalities.

“It’s difficult to really overdose on methamphetamine,” Gunson said. “But it’s not too hard to jump off buildings or drive crazy while you’re on meth.”

Overall, the state’s 200 drug-related deaths in 2010 were down 6 percent, from 213 in 2009. Heroin was the second leading cause of drug fatalities, with 90 deaths, a 29 percent drop from 2009. Cocaine-related deaths dropped to their lowest level since 2000, with 20 last year.

The statistics from the state medical examiner do not include prescription drug-related deaths. Gunson said those figures may be available next week.

In Multnomah County, drug-related deaths dropped from 94 in 2009 to 87 last year; nearly 60 percent of the county’s drug fatalities were from heroin, even though heroin deaths were down slightly.

“I’m somewhat surprised the heroin numbers aren’t larger,” said Mark McDonnell, a Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney who handles drug prosecutions.

Many of the heroin deaths in Multnomah County involved people in their early 20s who became addicted to pain medication and switched to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to obtain, McDonnell said.