Miley Cyrus or Synthetic Drugs: Which Is the Greater Threat?

Walt Lamar

Among other things, Miley Cyrus has become the poster girl for the club drug MDMA, which is gaining popularity in a powdered or crystal form called "Molly." Television about methamphetamine crimes rivet the nation, while the same citizens are blind to the reality of meth in their communities, including crime, addiction, contamination, overdose and endangered children. Doctors in Arizona and Illinois have sounded the alarm about emerging use of intravenous desomorphine, known as krokodil because it turns the user's skin green and scaly before the flesh literally rots from the bone. Although these seem to be big city problems, all these drugs are produced in clandestine labs throughout rural America. Local production keeps street prices low, but the cost in human lives and environmental damage is high.

Just as Breaking Bad's Walter White started his career cooking drugs on tribal lands, many drug manufacturers set up business on reservations. Mexican drug trafficking organizations successfully infiltrate close-knit Native communities by romancing women with promises of good times and financial security. Others just barge in and set up, like the three Arizona men who were caught producing meth on the Tonto Apache reservation. The Payson police chief admitted that prosecuting the drug dealers would be more difficult because of the "unusual jurisdictional issues" of non-Natives committing crimes on Indian lands.

A more recent bust rounded up three non-Native meth dealers who just rented an apartment on Catawba lands, convenient to distribution hubs in Charlotte, NC and Columbia, SC. The same week, investigators identified a second manufacturing site abandoned on nearby tribal lands.

Television may romanticize clandestine drug production, and Miley Cyrus can try to convince Rolling Stone readers that her "Molly" is pure fun, but the reality is anything but pure or entertaining. Clandestine drug production is smelly, caustic, cancer causing, and potentially explosive (which is often what tips off law enforcement). One experimenter describes the process of producing MDMA:

We used 75 litres of solvents which we had no way of recondensing as we had no fume cupboard. All that was boiled off producing vast amounts of vapour which was heavier than air and would fill up the basement. There were toxic fumes, some were highly poisonous, and a lot of spillages because we got over tired. Sometimes we were left coughing and ill from inhaling fumes which hurt our eyes and made us giddy. We were also worried about explosions which could be sparked off by the vacuum pump motor, so when things got really bad we had to evacuate the basement and the fumes could be seen drifting out of the windows. Once a flask of ether exploded, and during the Ritter reaction hot sulphuric acid and methyl cyanide shot up to the ceiling and dripped down onto us! I think it has permanently damaged my lungs.

Drug manufacture often engenders even more criminal (and often violent) activities, including property theft, armed crimes, assault and homicide. Guns are commonly confiscated at the site of clandestine labs, as well as stolen goods, especially controlled lab equipment and illegally obtained over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs.

These producers are not colorful moonshiners, nor are they meticulous chemistry teachers. Drug producers are criminals, amateur chemists, and not just careless about ventilation, spills, waste disposal and exposure, but unconcerned about additives to the manufactured drug. Cooking krokodil, a staple among Russian heroin addicts for a decade, starts with codeine medicine as a base, then adds an unpredictable cocktail of gasoline, paint thinner and lighter fluid. Users of Molly are adamant about its "purity," but tests of seized drugs show that kids are buying bags of something that may include MDMA but may also include a range of drugs from amphetamines to methylone. Meth production relies on ingredients like drain cleaner, and testing shows that seized drugs are usually heavily adulterated.

Overdoses from synthetic drugs have been soaring, sending some users both to the emergency room and killing others. The three krokodil users identified in Illinois had their limbs "significantly maimed" from the effects of the drug. Once users start injecting krokodil, their life expectancy is three to five years.

In addition to the widely publicized "Molly" deaths this summer, a 14-year-old girl in New Mexico recently died in the hospital after overdosing on a combination of MDMA and antihistamines. The drugs caused her to suffer seizures, sweating, and a heart rate of over 200 beats per minute.

 While the number of hospital admissions related to methamphetamine has been dropping steadily over the past decade, over 100,000 users sought treatment at local emergency rooms last year for overdoses. In some regions, methamphetamine is the primary cause of overdoses, which can manifest as seizures, strokes, kidney damage or kidney failure, heart attacks, or trouble breathing.

Perhaps because Disney stars and other popular figures seem to legitimize the use of synthetic drugs, young people are most affected by overdoses. Most new users are under 20 years old. Even kids who don't use drugs are at risk from clandestine manufacture. Labs are frequently set up in homes, endangering children in the building and even in the neighborhood. For every pound of meth produced, at least six pounds of toxic chemicals are used. The waste contaminates clothes, furniture, toys, books and anything else within the building. The chemicals often get dumped down drains, contaminating area septic, sewer and water systems. Chemical fumes are another environmental problem that can seriously affect young bodies.

Identification of clandestine labs of drug manufacture, then aggressive prosecution of manufacturers would go a long way toward convincing these criminals that we will not tolerate this behavior in our communities. People living on tribal lands need to become aware of the signs of a clandestine lab or drug manufacturers, including bad smells, distinctive trash, or unusual security precautions, and to report suspected drug production. Other tribal professionals like doctors, teachers and social workers should learn the signs of children exposed to drug manufacturing, including strong chemical smells and suspicious burns.

Even with improved identification and reporting, investigation and cleanup is still a challenge for tribes. The meth labs found on Catawba lands required hazmat crews to come all the way from Columbia, SC to clean up the waste. Many of these clandestine labs are just too dangerous for small tribal police forces to tackle. Some tribal law enforcement departments enter into agreements with county sheriff's departments or even state environmental departments to handle these crime scenes.

Tribal law enforcement should be sure that they have identified protocols for dealing with these toxic crime scenes, including cleaning up and disposing of the waste. For example, when Arizona tribes have hazardous waste emergencies, the tribes contact the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ responds to the scene, and the Environmental Protection Agency reimburses the state. The BIA, EPS, IHS and HUD developed an interagency cooperative fund to make funds and other assistance available to tribes, and may also be of assistance in mitigating hazardous drug labs.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.


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