Supply Shortages in the Age of Coronavirus Means Less Precursor Chemicals for Making Meth, and Higher Prices

The spread of the coronavirus has affected day-to-day life in countless ways. Shortages of common household items and stay-at-home orders are two trends that come to mind.

In the world of the illicit drug trade, COVID-19 has had an impact, too.

The normally seamless linking of global supply chains have unraveled in recent weeks. The result: The chemicals needed to manufacture methamphetamine and fentanyl are harder to acquire. And as with anything in demand, the result is higher prices.

From Asthma to Amphetamines  

Methamphetamines and amphetamine have a long history. 

Their roots begin with the ephedra shrub, which was used primarily in Asia over the millenia to help treat asthma, congestion and coughs. 

(Ephedra once was an ingredient in some herbal teas that addressed cold symptoms, and in energy pills and weight-loss supplements, before it was banned in the mid-2000s due to its connection to some deaths and heart attacks.)

In 1887 scientists isolated the stimulant ephedrine from the plant. A few years later amphetamine — which has valid clinical use in treating ADHD and narcolepsy — was coaxed from the ephedrine. In 1919 iodine and red phosphorus were used to tease out crystallized methamphetamine.

That development had two consequences that remain relevant today: Methamphetamine was more potent than its predecessors. And, it was cheaper to produce.

Fast, Furious, Felonious

For a while these stimulants had a spot at the pharmaceutical table. World War II soldiers took amphetamines to battle fatigue and cut hunger. (There are theories that meth was in part responsible for the lunacy of Nazi Germany as Adolf Hitler partook, along with many German soldiers, who, as it turns out were pretty blitzed during some of those Blitzkriegs.)  In the 1950s and ‘60s college students used them to study, or dieters dosed themselves to drop pounds. 

Too much of a not-so-good thing led to a crackdown on speed in 1970, and restrictions were put in place.. 

Black markets, ever enterprising, stepped in to fill the void and manufactured their own. 

Blue collar workers took methamphetamines to keep alert on the factory line or on the road.

Dealers, searching for the next best thing, developed a crystallized form, dubbed “Ice.” Users found smoking it brought on intense euphoria, and crystal solidified into a party drug.

Down Mexico Way

To combat a surge in production and use, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 was signed into law. One of the things it did was limit sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products and stash them behind the counter, because while they’re great for congestion, they’re also key ingredients in making methamphetamines.  

Where there’s a will, however, there’s a way. Enterprising minds simply resorted to making it with substituted ingredients, or the restricted substances made their way as contraband from China to Mexico. (Mexico happens to be the biggest producer of the meth that makes its way into the U.S., usually smuggled in through the southwest border.) 

And it’s worked well. 

Until COVID-19. 

Business still goes on beyond the arm of the law, but shortages have meant higher prices. 

Global Slowdown

Global trade has stalled as a result of the coronavirus. Many factories are at a standstill, and workers have been sent home to wait out the course of COVID-19. 

Photo credit: Pexels

Robert M. Landry, chief commercial officer of the Port of New Orleans, told the New York Times that even if the coronavirus were to disappear quickly, it would still take at least a few weeks for supply chains to start up again. 

Considering that the world shipping industry transports approximately 90% of the globe’s food, products and energy, that’s an unsettling development.

It’s been estimated that as much as 30% of the freight that moves in and out of the U.S. alone for the last part of February and all of March and April simply won’t be happening. 

As a result, supplies — illicit and otherwise — aren’t getting to their intended destinations. 

Higher Prices to Score a High

That stall in the supply chain is affecting the drug trade, too. A trafficker told VICE that production is happening, but it’s reduced — since China’s factories were shuttered in an effort to contain the virus’s spread — and the scarcity of chemicals and the higher cost is spiking prices. 

It’s already happening in Mexico, and since most of the U.S.’s meth comes from Mexico, it’s likely to rise north of the border as well. 

A pound of meth cost between $66 to $110 (1,500 to 2,500 pesos) wholesale before the coronavirus’s impact was felt. By the end of February it had soared to between $264 and $308 (6,000 to 7,000 pesos), according to VICE’s report. 

The coronavirus has perhaps one silver lining, according to Bryce Pardo, a researcher for the Rand Corporation. With people staying home more, there will be less partying and less demand. At least for drugs like methamphetamine. On the flip side, the most addicted may seek out methamphetamine and possibly score even more questionable batches or alternatives, and may succumb to overdose or risk contracting COVID-19. 

Drugs will still make their way into the U.S., however. With border agents sidelined due to coronavirus — thousands of Homeland Security agents have been quarantined and about 300 have tested positive for COVID-19 — resources are stretched thin and gaps in the armor will have cartels sneaking their product through.

Patrick Bailey is a writer for Sunshine Behavioral Health. His interests are addiction and recovery, psychology, social issues, and history.