Pubdate: Tue, 02 Aug 2005
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2005 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Robert Crowe
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Restrictions On Pseudoephedrine Sales Driving U.S. 'Cooks' Out Of Lucrative 

After Mark Dewayne Ruiz left prison following a two-year stint for 
possessing methamphetamine, it didn't take long for the drug to pull the 
Montgomery County man back into the criminal justice system.

In June 2004, four months after his release, Ruiz was arrested again and 
charged with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Unlike his first 
conviction, which investigators believe was linked to a local meth 
laboratory, Ruiz's latest conviction was tied to a lab in Mexico.

His case illustrates why methamphetamine abuse is likely to be a continuing 
headache for law enforcement and social service agencies despite a new law 
restricting sales of cold medication containing pseudoephedrine, a key 
ingredient used to manufacture the drug in local makeshift labs.

Repeat offenders like Ruiz are now looking to Mexican drug connections to 
buy the highly addictive crystalline drug known as "speed," "ice" and 

"Most of the meth cases we were used to working (in the Houston area) 
involved meth manufactured locally," said John Patrick Smith, the assistant 
U.S. attorney who secured convictions this spring against Ruiz and 15 other 
people involved in a drug conspiracy. "In this case, we had people from 
Montgomery County who were connected to local meth manufacturers, but then 
they started getting it from people in Mexico."

No longer a niche drug market controlled by biker gangs or rural "meth 
cooks" setting up labs in shacks or trailers, the meth trade now is ruled 
by cartels that manufacture 50 percent to 80 percent of this country's meth 
in Mexico and California, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency statistics.

The cartels manufacture meth in bulk quantities in "super labs" by 
smuggling tons of pseudoephedrine-based pills to Mexico from factories in 
Europe, India and Asia.

Some experts predict that the cartels will increase Mexican meth production 
to meet demand left by the new law's squeezing of domestic makers.

"Methamphetamines are the new frontier in drug trafficking," Jose Luis 
Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's top anti-narcotics prosecutor, said in a 
recent news conference.

Texas officials hope that even if the new law doesn't reduce meth use, it 
reduces problems directly associated with makeshift labs including the 
potential for explosions and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Texas is among 30 states to restrict pseudoephedrine sales in retail stores.

Under the Texas law, retailers now must place cold pills containing 
pseudoephedrine behind counters. Consumers are limited to buying no more 
than two packages after signing a form and showing identification.

Compliance varied on Monday. Pharmacies had removed the drug from open 
shelves weeks ago, but some small retailers said they weren't aware of the 
new law.

Miguel Salazar, an intern at Bradley Center Pharmacy, said his store put 
the pills behind counters after receiving notice from the Texas Board of 
Pharmacy weeks before the law became effective.

"We haven't seen anyone yet come in for the pills, but we mostly sell those 
in the winter and spring," he said.

A manager of a downtown convenience store with a pseudoephedrine medication 
available over the counter said she didn't know about the law.

Convenience stores and other retailers that sell cold medication must now 
apply for a certificate of authority from the Texas Department of State 
Health Services to sell pseudoephedrine-based pills.

Karen Tannert, the agency's chief pharmacist, said the state has left it up 
to wholesalers to make retailers aware of the new law. Only 300 of the 
state's 35,000 estimated retailers have applied for the certification.

"Judging from what we're hearing, many will opt not to carry the medication 
because they feel the profit from the sale is not worth the hassle," she said.

Oklahoma was the first state to pass restrictions. Since Oklahoma's law 
took effect in April 2004, drug enforcement officers report a 70 percent to 
90 percent decrease in meth lab seizures.

Though officials with the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau say the law was not 
designed to curb meth use, some say that fewer people are using because it 
is harder to get ingredients to make the drug.

"This law was not about stopping meth. It was about stopping meth labs," 
said Mark Woodward, narcotics bureau spokesman. "But I still think users 
are not running around and switching to Mexican meth because they cannot 
afford it."

Woodward said an addict who makes meth for personal use can do it for the 
cost of ingredients, about $43 an ounce. Mexican meth, he said, costs up to 
$1,500 an ounce on the street, because it includes smuggling costs and 
profit for various levels of dealers.

DEA and Texas Department of Public Safety officials have seized record 
amounts of meth in the past year. In May, Ruiz and 14 others pleaded guilty 
to various felony offenses associated with a meth trafficking operation. 
Ruiz, 25, was only a small-time buyer.

At the top was Juan Martinez, a Mexican national with the aliases of 
Agustin Chavez-Rodas and "Saul," whom federal prosecutors say arranged to 
manufacture the drug in Michoacan, Mexico, then smuggled it about a 
kilogram at a time across the border. Old women with concealed meth 
packages would travel from Mexico by bus to Houston and Dallas, said Smith, 
the federal prosecutor.

Martinez, Ruiz and the other defendants are in the Federal Detention Center 
downtown as they await sentencing in October. Ruiz declined to comment, but 
his lawyer, Robert Fickman, said he has noticed the growing trend of 
Mexican meth operations.

"Where you historically had large cases involving heroin and crack, now 
we're seeing more large meth conspiracies," he said.

Another Montgomery County man in the case, Terry Hidalgo, the only person 
to go to trial, was convicted of a conspiracy to trade his New Caney home 
for $171,000 in Mexican meth.

In a recent interview at the detention center, Hidalgo insisted he is 
innocent of that transaction, but he acknowledged using meth for two years 
before his arrest and was aware of the growing presence of Mexican meth.

"Once that Michoacan connection came about  it started in a Houston 
cantina  that stuff was all over Montgomery County," he said.

Hidalgo, 51, a former truck driver, said he purchased $50 to $100 of meth 
every week to help him stay alert.

"From time to time I would use it to fudge; you know, cheat, get extra 
endurance," he said.

Methamphetamine use has been portrayed largely as a rural issue, but urban 
"recreational" use is on the rise, said Houston Police Department 
Investigator Robert DiMambro, who works with the Texas Department of Public 
Safety's Methamphetamine Initiative Group.

"In my past association with meth, I believe people were afraid of it and 
preferred the pretty or preppy cocaine," he said. "Now there is no fear and 
the pretty people are doing meth."

Dudley Althaus contributed to this story.

SIDEBAR: BEHIND THE COUNTER Some of the brand-name cold medications 
containing pseudoephedrine: Sudafed Tylenol Cold Advil Cold Drixoral 
Benadryl Allergy & Cold Robitussin Cold Sinus & Congestion Various generic 

Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
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