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A modern history of meth starts in Missouri

2009 anti-meth print ads are displayed by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. One poster shows a man standing facing the viewer, flanked by the words "My job. My friends. My fugure. I lost everything to meth."
Rachel Lippman
2009 anti-meth print ads are displayed by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In a roughly decadelong stretch starting in the early 2000s, police in Missouri busted so many meth labs that it earned the state an infamous distinction: the “meth capital of America."

Domestic manufacture in the state has fallen steeply since: In 2018, the Missouri Highway Patrol reported just 50 meth seizures, down from more than 2,000 in 2012.

But it’s debatable whether Missouri ever deserved its title. Olivia Weeks, the host of a new podcast, “Homecooked: A 50-Year History of Meth in America,” noted that Missouri’s meth market could never truly compete with California's, in which biker gangs and organized crime groups distributed the drug starting in the 1970s.

“The problem grew faster in Missouri than elsewhere. And it's a little bit unclear why,” conceded Weeks, a reporter for the Daily Yonder. “It could come down to cultural connections between California bikers and truckers in Missouri, that's really impossible to measure. But the one thing we know for sure is that Missouri had a bigger meth lab problem than the states around it, even though [those] states had big meth lab problems in the early 2000s, late '90s.”

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Weeks explored Missouri’s important role in the spread of meth, including how chemists turned to cough medicine as a key ingredient. The method led to an explosion of home cooks — and Missouri's rise in the mid-2000s as the No. 1 state for meth lab seizures in the country.

Today, the center of meth manufacture lies outside the U.S. But Weeks noted that the drug itself has never left Missouri.

“The ’peak’ of meth in Missouri, really, is right now,” she said. “Domestic production of methamphetamine in Missouri was around 2004. But … there's more in Missouri right now than ever before.”

Along with Weeks, Nichole Dawsey, executive director of the nonprofit agency Prevent Ed, joined St. Louis on the Air’s discussion of meth’s spread in Missouri.

Dawsey began her career in substance prevention in the mid-2000s, when meth busts soared in rural areas of Missouri. Looking back on that era, Dawsey acknowledged that the state’s status as a “meth capital” drew needed attention, and funding, to the problem.

She cautioned, however, that the focus on meth likely pulled attention from other drugs that were on the rise at the time, including heroin and opioids.

“Who knows what the next drug out there is?” she said. “I think the label [of 'meth capital'] helped us in some ways, but it also was incredibly stigmatizing, especially to rural communities and to the people who were using meth themselves.”

To hear more from Olivia Weeks and Nichole Dawsey, including Missouri’s key role in the spread of meth, and how prevention strategies have changed, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Olivia Weeks and Nichole Dawsey on 'St. Louis on the Air'

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."