Northeast Iowa drug trends: Meth still drug of choice, but heroin a growing concern

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Methamphetamine is still the drug of choice in northeast Iowa, but heroin use is a growing concern.

That’s according to a special agent with the Division of Narcotics Enforcement (part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety), who led a presentation about northeast Iowa drug trends on March 23, at Clayton Ridge Middle School in Garnavillo. 

The event was sponsored by the Clayton County Community Collaboration Council (5C), which, through initiatives and education, works to raise awareness of alcohol, tobacco and drug use.

The special agent, who requested anonymity due to the often undercover nature of his work, said the Division of Narcotics Enforcement has 35 agents working statewide.

“We lead narcotics investigation in Iowa,” he explained. “Our goal is to find the sources of supply.”

Methamphetamine continues to be a problem in Iowa, although the methods of creating the drug have changed over the years, the agent said.

There are three main ways to cook meth: red phosphorus, lithium ammonia reduction and one pot. All require the nasal or sinus decongestant pseudoephedrine.

The red phosphorus method, as the name suggests, relies on phosphorus as a main ingredient. This can often be obtained from match striker plates, the agent said. Coleman fuel, tincture of iodine, hydrogen peroxide, salt and drain cleaner can also be found in the mixture. 

“It’s a really bad way to cook meth,” said the agent, detailing the red refuse that results from the cooking process. “The walls will ooze a red liquid. That hazard can stay around.”

Today, this method is uncommon, he said, but noted eastern Iowa is “famous for being a straggler, so there are still some labs left.”

Lithium ammonia reduction involves a different conversion process, with anhydrous ammonia causing the reaction.  Lithium batteries, as well as a combination of solvents and acids, are also used. 

“Until a few years ago,” said the agent, “this was the most popular way to make meth.”

Now, that method has been eclipsed by one pot labs. Gatorade or Powerade bottles—any containers with larger openings in which to pour all the ingredients—are usually the “pot” of choice, he shared. Cook time takes around an hour. That speed and portability makes them ideal for cooks.

“It goes in the kitchen, in cars, in someone’s backpack going down the street,” the agent said.

With the one pot method, ammonia is still a main ingredient. The agent said cooks often obtain it through tree fertilizer spikes and cold packs (ice packs). Lithium batteries, too, are a main ingredient. 

“They will cut lithium batteries open,” he explained. “If you find that, there’s a pretty good chance they’re using it for meth.”

The lithium reacts with the ammonia, making for a deadly combination when it hits water inside the bottle.

“The reaction bubbles and roils, and when it hits a pocket of water, it ignites,” the agent remarked. “Then you have a bunch of Coleman fuel on fire. Fires can get out of hand really fast.”

To finish cooking, or “salting out,” the meth, the cook uses a hydrogen chloride gas (HCL) generator. A series of hoses runs from the top of one bottle to the next, to distribute the gas. The gas, said the agent, makes the meth “fall out of the solution.”

Between this step and the filters, ingredients and bottles used to create the meth, “it’s a homemade chemistry set,” the agent detailed. “It’s just a big chemical experiment.”

According to the special agent, the cooking process becomes easier thanks to “Smurfs” who buy pseudoephedrine and sell it to cooks. Iowa’s pseudoephedrine-control law currently requires people to present a government-issued photo ID and be over the age of 18 in order to purchase products containing pseudoephedrine. Purchases are tracked electronically and people can buy no more than 7.5 grams of pseudoephedrine from a pharmacy or retailer in a 30-day period. 

“A cook might have 10 to 20 people buying for them, then they don’t have to stop cooking,” he said. “There are hundreds of active Smurfs.”

The going rate for a box of pills containing pseudoephedrine, he added, is $50 or an exchange of a half a gram of meth. (A typical meth dose of a quarter gram costs from $25 to $40.)

Even the one pot method of cooking meth, however, is decreasing, the agent noted. Users are instead turning to imported ice meth, which, as the name suggests, resembles ice.

“It accounts for 85 percent of the meth in Iowa, and it’s the majority of meth in the country,” the agent said.

“All we find now is ice,” claimed Clayton County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Deputy Matt Moser, who also attended the presentation. “Meth labs are down 90 percent.”

Meth, which is usually smoked or injected, is extremely addictive. As a stimulant, it speeds things up for users, while also causing hallucinations and agitation.

“You will often see people fidgeting and picking at themselves,” explained the agent. “They think they have meth bugs, so they dig at their skin.”

Use of the drug causes insomnia, as well.

“They’ll get all amped up and just want to do stuff, then they’ll crash for days,” the agent continued. “Meth is psychologically and physically destructive.”

So, why do people do it? Meth, he said, releases dopamine, which tells a person’s brain that he/she is feeling pleasure. During a natural release, around 5 to 10 percent of dopamine is expelled; meth releases 100 percent. 

“They can never get back to that original high, though,” the agent said.

In order to satisfy that chase for the next high, the agent said Iowa drug users would need a total of 8.5 pounds of meth each day. That’s 255 pounds of meth per month and 3,060 pounds per year.

“That’s a lot of meth we’re using here,” he said. “That’s $36 million that’s leaving the state in drug proceeds to cartels.”

With that demand—and cost—the agent said users often sell to support their own habits. In fact, that’s how a lot of drug dealers start, he added.

Other crimes, such as burglaries, are also perpetrated to pay for the habit.

“It’s almost unusual for burglaries not to be related to people associated with drugs,” he remarked, “Crimes like that are connected.”

Methamphetamine isn’t the only drug that worries law enforcement, however.

“Heroin is a huge concern right now,” the agent stated. “We’re seeing increasing overdoses and deaths nationally. And it’s here.”

Heroin is derived from the poppy plant (opium). It is powdery and ranges from tan/brown to white in color. Availability has skyrocketed, noted the special agent, as large quantities come up from the south.

The drug is injected, providing users with a short-term rush of euphoria. Withdrawal is severe.

“They have to use it multiple times a day,” explained the agent. “Once they’re addicted, their whole life revolves around getting that next high.”

While that alone creates a serious overdose risk, the agent said the threat has increased now that heroin has been mixed with other drugs, like fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid in the same family as heroin, and was designed for medical purposes, to treat pain. It’s now arriving in bulk from Mexico, the agent said. As a result, fentanyl is less controlled, more potent and considerably more deadly than if it was manufactured by an American pharmaceutical company.

The drug can be absorbed through the skin, and even a small airborne amount can take down a man. The agent said fentanyl has become so hazardous that the Division of Narcotics Enforcement doesn’t field test it anymore.

These days, if you’re taking heroin, “you never know exactly what you’re getting,” the agent said. “It’s not just the drug you’re getting, but that it’s mixed with something else; there are discrepancies in heroin purity. You don’t know if you’re dealing with heroin, heroin/fentanyl or just fentanyl.”

“How do you tell the difference between fentanyl and heroin,” questioned an audience member.

“You don’t always know,” the agent responded. “That’s why people are dying.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), U.S. heroin deaths increased over six-fold from 2002 to 2015, the last year for which they have statistics. In 2002, deaths totaled around 2,000; in 2015, that jumped to over 12,000.

Still more people, however, overdose and die due to prescription drug abuse. In 2015, nearly 18,000 overdose deaths were attributed to prescription opioid pain killers, said NIDA.

“It really is a huge problem,” said the special agent, noting that one issue is the perception associated with prescription drugs. People think they’re not as dangerous because “they’re in my medicine cabinet, my doctor gave them to me.”

Availability also contributes to the epidemic. The agent encouraged people to properly dispose of old and unused medications.

“There’s no reason to keep it around,” he said. “It’s a hazard waiting to happen.”

While law enforcement have pinpointed drug trends, dealing with them is often easier said than done, the agent commented. 

“There’s so much drug use and distribution,” he said, yet there’s limited man power to deal with the prevalence. “Everyone is spread thin. You could keep a lot of officers busy all the time.”

It also takes time to build an investigation.

“We need probable cause to go into a house. It takes time to get a search warrant,” he explained. “It depends on the info—what it is, how we got it and the urgency of the situation. Every case is different; there’s not always a speedy answer.”

“Don’t let that discourage you, though,” the agent assured those in attendance. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it.”

To learn more about 5C or to contact them about what’s going in your community, go to, find Clayton County CCC on Facebook or email


Northeast Iowa and other drugs

The special agent from the Division of Narcotics Enforcement also touched on some other narcotics, including marijuana, which he said is the most common illicit drug.

Marijuana includes several forms: hashish, hash oil and butane hash oil. Its active ingredient is THC, and the drug is usually smoked. Marijuana is a hallucinogen, as well as a depressant, impairing judgment and skills and causing drowsiness.

“I haven’t talked with any drug users who didn’t start with marijuana,” the agent commented. “One in six people who use it before they’re 18 will abuse it or become addicted to it.”

The agent said marijuana’s potency has increased since the 1960s. Back then, THC content was just 3 percent, compared to 20 to 30 percent today. 

That’s not the only change, he added. Vaping, with the use of electronic cigarettes, has now become more popular. It also makes marijuana use harder to detect.

Usage of the drug has also been increasingly normalized, said the agent, due to marijuana “culture” marketing and the legalization of marijuana in several states.

Marketing of synthetic drugs has grown, as well. 

“There are tons of different substances marketed as bath salts, incense and potpourri, but they are really none of those things,” the agent said.

The man-made drugs have similar effects as illicit drugs, causing paranoia, delusions and violence.

“They make users extremely unpredictable,” the agent stated. Plus, he remarked, “They’re constantly changing, so you don’t know what you’re getting,”

The special agent briefly touched on three other drugs—cocaine, crack and hallucinogens (ecstasy, LSD, PCP)—but said they are not as popular in northeast Iowa.

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