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This file photo from 2017 shows a bag containing methamphetamine crystals from the evidence locker at the Albany Police Department. 

The New York Times ran a story last week with a Portland dateline: "Meth, the Forgotten Killer, is Back," the somewhat breathless headline read. "And It's Everywhere."

If police officers or criminal attorneys or judges saw that headline, they might have smiled wryly and shaken their heads. And here's the reason for that moment of dark amusement: They know, better than anyone else, that methamphetamine isn't back.

It never really went away.

There's been a lot of attention given, justifiably, to the opioid crisis in the United States. One result of that, arguably, is that we've not focused as much on methamphetamine, Oregon's top drug scourge for decades now.

But that doesn't mean meth has gone away. Not by a long shot. And, if anything, it's more pervasive now than it has been. 

New numbers released last week tell at least some of the story in Oregon: The Oregon Health Authority, using information gathered from death certificates, reported 141 meth-related deaths in the state during 2016. (Statistics for 2017 are not yet available.) That 2016 number represents a considerable boost from 2012, a year that saw 51 overdose deaths from meth, the Health Authority said.

In terms of fatalities, the 2016 toll from meth was just slightly less than the toll from opioids: The Health Authority reported 149 deaths from pharmaceutical and synthetic opioid overdoses in 2016. 

The Statesman-Journal newspaper in Salem, which collected that data from the Health Authority, also tracked a similar trend in convictions for meth possession: From 2008 to 2015, the number of meth possession cases rose from about 2,000 to 3,665, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. The number dropped slightly in 2016, to 3,612. It's too early to tell how the 2017 Legislature's action to make personal-use possession of meth a misdemeanor will affect that number, but that's something we need to track closely.

As any prosecutor will tell you, though, those conviction numbers only tell part of the story about how meth use in connected to other crimes: Property crimes, for example, often have their origins in meth addiction. 

Oregon has taken effective steps against meth in the past: In 2006, the state begin requiring a doctor's prescription to buy the nasal decongestant used to make the drug. As a result, the number of domestic meth labs dropped dramatically.

But now, much of the meth in the U.S. market is being provided by Mexican drug cartels, which have flooded the market with pure, low-cost meth. The Times reported that dealers have so much of the product that they don't know what to with it all. Prices have fallen, and the purity of the product has increased.

The problem isn't isolated to the West Coast. The Times reported that meth violations more than tripled between 2010 and 2015 in Montana. Meth is easily the No. 1 cause for drug-related deaths in Oklahoma. In South Dakota, the attorney general has proclaimed an epidemic. And drug cartels looking to expand the market for meth have targeted the East Coast.

The bill in last year's Legislature to make personal-use possession a misdemeanor was supported by the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment. But the groups also warned that the law would work only if "additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy." In addition, the state needs to be sure that it allocates sufficient resources to efforts such as drug courts.

It may be true, as a Salem police officer said, that we can't arrest our way out of this latest wave of meth. But that means we have to do everything we can to reduce demand — and that will require savvy and creative educational and prevention efforts. (mm)

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