The Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican drug organizations are making a new push to build markets for methamphetamine on Long Island and in New York City, placing samples of the powerful drug inside their cocaine and heroin shipments to get customers hooked, law enforcement officials said.
The drug, known on the streets as "meth," has historically been less popular with users in the metropolitan region than marijuana, cocaine and heroin, officials said. Now cartel leaders are trying to use that dynamic to their advantage, putting more meth into the hands of local dealers with customers they think are ripe to try a new product.
"It follows the pattern we saw with heroin 20 years ago when the Colombians were trying to create a market for their heroin by shipping it with cocaine," said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan. "By pumping up the supply [of meth], they hope to create demand."
As part of their marketing efforts, dealers are even giving away free samples of meth, hoping users will get addicted and become regular buyers, officials said.
"They're giving it out as a business decision . . . just like a real businessman would do to try and build a market," said Special Agent in Charge James Hunt, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office.
Dangers of meth
The dangers of meth were highlighted this month when ex-Suffolk County Community College Associate Dean Robert Beodeker was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison for causing a deadly March 2013 crash while high on the drug.
The crash killed Edward Ross, 65, of North Bellmore, and John Elder, 76, of Freeport. The friends, both military veterans, were standing with a broken-down car on a Meadowbrook State Parkway shoulder in Roosevelt when Beodeker slammed into it.
Meth can be smoked or injected, and usually comes in the form of a crystalline white powder that is odorless, bitter-tasting and dissolves easily in water or alcohol. Unlike marijuana, cocaine and heroin, which are derived from plants, meth is manufactured using chemicals like pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, commonly found in cold medicine.
The meth circulating on Long Island and in the city's five boroughs is mostly produced inside cartel-operated "superlabs," which churn out tens of thousands of pounds of the synthetic drug in Mexico for sale in the United States, officials said.
Since meth is so cheap for the cartels to make -- all their workers need are the right precursor chemicals, mixing equipment and a lab in which to work -- production has boomed. The increased supply has led street prices here to plummet, officials said.
A bag of meth can be had for as little as $5 on the streets of Long Island, as opposed to $10 to $20 a few years ago, officials said.
By-the-pound purchases are far cheaper, too. A pound of meth sold for an average of about $30,000 four years ago in the United States, authorities said. Today the Mexican-produced product sells for $8,000 to $10,000 a pound.
"They're [the cartels] sending more than there's really an established customer base for, because it's so cheap to make," Hunt said. "And it's so highly addictive, they know the more people they get to try it, the more addicts they'll create."
Drug enforcement authorities have voiced concern for years over the possibility of meth becoming as popular in New York as it is in more rural parts of the country.
"We're fearful of it, but we've been fearful of it for a long time," Hunt said. "It just never took off in this area."
This time, some officials caution, could be different.
One reason for their concern: Meth in New York was formerly produced almost exclusively by amateur "cookers," entrepreneurial drug dealers who made low-quality meth in makeshift labs inside homes, motel rooms and vehicles, authorities said.
The purity level of their meth typically topped out at 40 percent, officials said, but the drug surged in popularity nonetheless, causing addiction epidemics in parts of the American South and West.
Those epidemics, in turn, led to limits on the sale of certain precursor chemicals commonly used to make meth -- chemicals that are still easy to procure in Mexico, officials said. Today Mexican superlabs produce meth that is 90 percent to 98 percent pure, more powerful than almost any version of the drug that has come before, authorities said.
Cheap, easy to buy
Local drug experts said they fear the ongoing crackdowns against heroin and prescription opioid abuse could lead more users to try meth, since it is so cheap and easy to purchase.
"We've seen an increased willingness among users to try anything and everything," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, an addiction expert and president and CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association. "I'm concerned the stage is set for something like this [a rise in meth use]."
Many meth addicts prefer the rocklike version of the drug, crystal methamphetamine, which is known on the streets as "ice," "crystal" or "glass," officials said.
Slightly more people use meth than heroin in the United States, despite a surge in heroin use across the country in recent years, according to a report released by the DEA in April. But more Americans still use marijuana, opioid pain pills and cocaine than they do meth or heroin, the report said. For that reason, the Mexican cartels, and Sinaloa in particular, see meth as a "growth market" with potential for huge increases in profits, authorities said.
Their new strategy is reflected in the amount of meth being seized in the Southwest.
In Arizona alone, more than 3,240 pounds of meth were seized during the eight-month period ended in May, compared to more than 3,200 pounds seized during all of the fiscal year ended in September 2014, according to data compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Locally, the largest recent meth seizure came in April when authorities busted a cartel-affiliated heroin and meth ring with supply routes from the Bronx to Long Island, making three arrests and netting about $500,000 worth of meth.
"Let's hope it doesn't take off the way it has in other parts of the country," Hunt said of the drug. "At a time when we're dealing with opioid and heroin epidemics, meth on top of that would be disastrous."