The opioid epidemic has received massive attention from state and federal officials. But it's methamphetamine that has remained the deadliest drug in Oregon and much of the U.S., and it is growing more lethal.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that twice as many people died in Oregon from meth use in 2016 than from heroin overdoses. The number of deaths was three times as many as a decade before, in 2006.
"Everybody has meth around here — everybody," a 27-year-old heroin user named Sean in downtown Portland told the Times. "It's the easiest to find."
Those numbers reflect the scenes on the street that WW observed last summer, when people living on Portland's streets described meth as a currency, more valuable than cash. "You can buy anything with a $20 bag of meth," said Timothy Ferrell, a man who lives in a tent outside St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. "It freely flows here, in this town."
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In 2006, Oregon cut off domestic meth labs from access to pseudoephedrine by requiring a doctor's prescription to access the decongestant. But Mexican drug cartels have filled the void with cheap, pure drugs shipped over the border in record numbers.
The drug has been getting more pure and cheaper since it surged into the U.S. in the mid-1990s. In 2016, drug enforcement agents confiscated 24 times as much meth at border checkpoints in Arizona, Texas and California than they did in 2007.
Portland Police report a correlation between meth use and crimes like burglary and the city's surging car thefts.
Users and former users say the drug provides fuel for grueling lives on the margins—they have described a substance that provides the energy boost of espresso, the numbing effects of Xanax, and the threat of hallucinations.